Cuts hit state employment security agency

Half its staff sees either reduced hours or furlough

Staff writerOctober 9, 2013 

The federal government shutdown has prompted big cutbacks at the state Employment Security Department, which on Tuesday put half of its 1,669 staffers on furlough or reduced hours.

About 833 workers are affected by the cutbacks, including about half who are working at 50 percent or 60 percent of full time and the other half who are furloughed indefinitely. “The bulk of the furloughs are here in Olympia. I’d say the bulk of the reduced hours are out in the field,’’ agency spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison said.

“We’re about 87 percent federally funded. Any blips in the federal funding really affect us,’’ Hutchison said, noting that layoff notices had gone out Oct. 1 when the shutdown began.

Because some federal funding was awarded during summer, the agency still has funds to keep its WorkSource offices open. Those are staffed with employees working reduced hours in most cases to help job seekers, Hutchison said.

But as Gov. Jay Inslee cautioned at a Sunday news conference, the agency lacks funds to keep a few dozen federally funded veterans specialists on duty to help military vets with jobless claims or to connect them with other services such as training. ESD had some funds left over for that purpose but has exhausted them in the week since the federal shutdown began Oct. 1, Hutchison said.

The agency’s commissioner, Dale Peinecke, and deputy commissioner Nan Thomas are among the staffers working 60 percent time and receiving partial pay.

“They wanted to share the pain and make the statement this is not just about front line staff being reduced,” Hutchison said.

The agency could face further slimming down in the coming weeks. That is because the funds available to pay unemployment benefits will run out without federal action — and the state has limited funds available to keep staff on hand to process claims that usually are paid using federal dollars.

“We figure we are good for at least a few more weeks,’’ Hutchison said. “At some point we have to make a decision — do we keep paying for unemployment benefits and not have money for things we had planned such as computer projects and other things on the back end?”

The agency reports that roughly 80,000 to 90,000 people are receiving unemployment benefits in Washington.

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