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Washington state boosts help for jobless

Agency’s call center adds hours, agents

The Washington Employment Security Department will take calls from newly unemployed workers Saturdays in an effort to keep up with surging benefit claims, Commissioner Karen Lee said Monday.

The department will take calls from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Its weekday hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Applicants can use automated features of the telephone system after hours Monday through Thursday.

Lee said the department has doubled the number of agents handling calls and will add more as they are trained, to reduce busy signals.

“This is not a cure,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, it appears our economy is going to get worse.”

A record 90,331 residents applied for benefits in December, she said.

The Washington unemployment rate Dec. 31 was 7.1 percent, up from 4.8 percent a year ago. The rate for Spokane County was 7.6 percent Dec. 31.

Lee said processing goes faster when applicants have complete and accurate information about their job history ready when they call. If the information cannot be confirmed by the applicant’s former employer, the first check will be delayed, she said.

Lee recommended that callers use land lines, because they might be put on hold.

Deputy Commissioner Nan Thomas said agents want to take the time to make sure all information is correct. If it is, checks should start arriving in three weeks, she said

Disputes over qualifications and other issues have snagged about 12,000 claims, she said.

Peg Waldron, assistant director of Workforce Operations in Spokane, said a “rapid response” team has since Oct. 1 visited 25 Spokane-area employers who are laying off more than 1,000 employees total, with 80 percent of the jobs in manufacturing. Team members explain how to apply for benefits and talk about job-training opportunities and health insurance options, she said.

Federal money pays for the response program.

John VanVeen, who has not been jobless since the mid-1980s, said the system worked well for him. He just entered his name, Social Security number and the name of his employer. “I was surprised,” he said.

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