Muzzall urges accountability at failure-plagued agency

Paid family leave program running out of cash

There may be a COVID-baby boom, but expectant parents may be out of luck getting benefits they’ve paid for after news that the state agency managing the program is running out of money.

The Employment Security Department, responsible for collection of the taxes and payment of benefits, let legislators know late last week that the Paid Family Medical Leave fund will have a cash deficit by the end of March or April.

State Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, says more scrutiny is needed for high-profile agencies plagued by failures.

The fund, paid for with a payroll tax, provides new parents or people caring for sick loved ones a financial lifeline, but demand has outpaced supply despite the rate increasing at the beginning of 2022, and raising the tax rate again isn’t an option before the account goes in the red.

“I can’t say I’m shocked, but certainly frustrated with how this agency overseeing billions of tax dollars continues to fail people when they need it most,” said Muzzall, the Senate Republican Caucus vice chair. “Since joining the Senate, I’ve focused my efforts on nonpartisan issues of structure, discipline, and accountability – something sorely missing from how our state government functions for the people it serves. The pandemic has highlighted the need for more of that.”

Muzzall, who sits on committees providing oversight to various state social programs, points to repeated missteps at ESD over the nearly 700-day COVID-19 emergency. The agency came under fire near the beginning of the pandemic when out-of-work Washingtonians couldn’t receive unemployment benefits in a timely manner.

“This agency has been plagued by one failure after another and this is another example of some pretty disappointing mismanagement. I’m wondering when Washingtonians will be able to actually count on these costly programs,” said Muzzall. “There is a serious need for the Legislature to impose some strict accountability going forward.”

The agency simultaneously sent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to overseas scammers. Adding insult to injury, ESD began cracking down on desperate unemployed workers who had been targets of identity theft. The Democratic megadonor overseeing the agency quit her post in state government to take a job in the Biden administration doing similar work.

ESD also had a hand in the rollout of the wildly unpopular WA Cares long-term care program, charged with processing exemptions only to be dogged by website crashes and lengthy delays.

In a presentation to legislators, ESD noted that only 40% of calls ever were answered, with an average wait time over an hour. Since increased staffing, those numbers have improved, with 70% of calls now reaching staff and wait times down to 14 minutes.

“The rosy picture painted about customer-service improvements is not in line with the reality what families in need are experiencing,” Muzzall added.

Tuesday afternoon, ESD announced a special, off-calendar meeting regarding trust fund projections. The agenda and how to join the meeting can be found by clicking here.