Julie Su is the right No. 2 choice to help lead Biden's Labor Department

Julie Su is the right No. 2 choice to help lead Biden's Labor Department
© Greg Nash

When President BidenJoe BidenHouse clears bill to provide veterans with cost-of-living adjustment On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default To reduce poverty, stop burdening the poor: What Joe Manchin gets wrong about the child tax credit MORE nominated Julie Su, California’s current Labor secretary, to serve in the No.2 spot in the U.S. Department of Labor, many in this state and across the country applauded the choice. But in recent weeks, Su has come under fire from some for her handling of unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

These attacks, however, are unfounded. Su’s experience, expertise and tireless dedication to helping working Americans make her the perfect candidate to serve as deputy Labor secretary in Biden’s administration. 

The daughter of immigrants and a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law, Su’s resume is second to none. She entered government after a storied career as a civil rights lawyer, winning millions of dollars for low-wage workers and securing significant protections for immigrants — work for which she was awarded a MacArthur fellows “genius grant.”

ADVERTISEMENT

As California Labor Commissioner under Gov. Jerry Brown (D) Su achieved record-setting labor law enforcement that gained support from both worker advocates and the business community. She created groundbreaking partnerships between government and community groups and forged innovative “high road” training programs and career pathways across the state. 

As California secretary of Labor, Su oversees nearly all of the critical labor law and employment programs that she would also oversee in the Biden administration. Her framework for COVID-19 recovery has focused on investments in equity, job quality and expanding opportunity for workers at all skill levels and of all backgrounds — priorities shared by Biden.

Su responded to the challenges unleashed by the tsunami of pandemic-initiated job losses with her principled leadership and problem-solving skills. As secretary, the first and foremost job that Su had was to pay out benefits to eligible individuals in a timely fashion. Against that benchmark, she succeeded. Our research at The Century Foundation shows that California never fell below a rate of paying three out of every five applicants within 21 days from when an application was deemed eligible (jumping to four out of five by January). By comparison, other large states such as New York and Florida were paying only a quarter of workers that quickly at the peak of layoffs last summer. 

Still, more than 1.6 million Californians had pending claims that were unresolved by September — excruciating delays due in part to jammed phone lines and antiquated computer systems. In response, Su worked closely with Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomBiden administration launches new national initiative to fight homelessness Equity is key to resilience — three ways make it a priority Juan Williams: Shame on the anti-mandate Republicans MORE (D) and an external strike force to get to the bottom of the delays. By the end of last month, more than 99.9 percent of these pending claims were resolved.  Our data show that by November, California had paid more than 75 percent of initial claims for state benefits, second only to Colorado. 

Critics of Su rightly note that California has been beset by an avalanche of fraudulent unemployment claims during the pandemic. But these problems are not new: before the pandemic, unemployment payments had a national improper rate above 10 percent. The urgency to expand unemployment benefits — and set up new programs altogether — only exacerbated the problem. Thanks to widespread data breaches such as Equifax, criminals had easy access to personal identity information needed to fool standard fraud screens that California had in place.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nor were these fraud challenges unique to California. In just the last month, fraudsters filed hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims in Arizona and Ohio. Illinois reports having to intercept more than 1 million fraudulent claims. From Massachusetts to Washington, organized crime rings — often international in nature — have targeted vulnerable unemployment systems in states across the country, with similar levels of success. 

Despite the fact that these attacks warranted a national response, states were largely left to respond on their own and California wasted no time. The state was one of the first five to adopt new anti-fraud technologies like ID.me and additional prevention tools from Thomson Reuters, which have helped block $60 billion in fraudulent claims. And under Su’s leadership, California has led the effort to petition Biden to form a national organized fraud task force to unleash all the tools of law enforcement to intercept fraud before it happens. 

Su’s record is clear. She is a tenacious visionary who has helped level the playing field for working families while strengthening California’s economy. Biden is wise to pick someone who was in the trenches during the COVID-19 jobless crisis, who didn’t rest until critical unemployment aid was delivered and system glitches were resolved. I’m confident that she’ll carry that same approach to Washington, D.C. 

Andrew Stettner is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, and is one of the nation’s leading experts on unemployment insurance