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News >  Washington

Jobless benefit claims in state skyrocket; 12,000 file for unemployment in Spokane County in 1 week

UPDATED: Thu., April 2, 2020

The business of optometrist Michelle Darnell is closed and she is staying home like mosst other people in Spokane Valley, shown Thursday, April 2, 2020. She can see patients for urgent or emergency care, but otherwise is shut down. “The regular patients,” she says, “are my bread and butter.” (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The business of optometrist Michelle Darnell is closed and she is staying home like mosst other people in Spokane Valley, shown Thursday, April 2, 2020. She can see patients for urgent or emergency care, but otherwise is shut down. “The regular patients,” she says, “are my bread and butter.” (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Amy Edelen and Jim Camden The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Unemployment claims continued to skyrocket last week as Washington’s stay-home order took a further toll on construction, retail and manufacturing jobs around the state and within Spokane County.

Total unemployment claims surpassed those filed with the state during the worst weeks of the Great Recession. Nearly 182,000 new claims, and nearly 350,000 total claims, were filed from people out of work.

By comparison, the previous worst single week for new claims in Washington was 26,075 during the recession that began in 2008. The highest number of total claims, both new and ongoing, was 314,473 in January 2010.

Spokane County residents filed a record-breaking number of unemployment claims last week, according to data released Thursday by the Washington State Employment Security Department. New unemployment claims in the county soared to 12,202 during the week of March 22-28, a 38% increase over the 8,766 claims filed a week prior.

That number is close to triple the 4,600 unemployment insurance claims filed in the county during spring 2009 – the Great Recession’s peak, according to seasonally adjusted data from the employment security department.

Michelle Darnell, an optometrist, is looking at unemployment from the perspective of an employer and employee. She owns Lilac Family Eye Care – normally open three days a week – and works for the LensCrafters locations in the NorthTown and Spokane Valley malls.

For LensCrafters, she is considered an independent contractor. Because of the CARES Act, which was passed Monday, she qualifies for unemployment. While she cannot apply for it until April 15 when the website should be set up, she will receive retroactive pay from March 23.

Darnell’s office closed on March 25, though she can take patients in the case of an emergency, such as people who have an object in their eye, eye pain or loss of vision, mainly to keep those patients from going to the hospital. Darnell has one employee whom she temporarily let go.

Darnell and her employee sat down and talked about finances and decided Darnell should set her layoff date as March 30 instead of March 23.

“She takes really good care of me when I’m not there, or when I’m with a patient,” Darnell said. “My practice is entirely in her hands, so it’s my best interest to take care of her, too.”

While things look bad, they are likely to get worse. Spokane County likely will continue to see an increase in new unemployment claims for the first week of April as more laid-off construction workers file for benefits, said Doug Tweedy, a regional economist for the employment security department.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a modification to the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order last week that deemed construction a nonessential business. Public works, government or low-income housing projects are exempt from the order. Inslee extended that modified order on Thursday until May 4.

New unemployment claims include recently laid-off workers in the process of determining eligibility for paid unemployment benefits.

Spokane County’s unemployment rate was 5.6% in February, with more than 248,010 employed people. More than 1,547 initial unemployment claims were filed in February, according to the employment security department.

The county’s preliminary unemployment data for March is anticipated to be released April 21 by the department.

“As we get more information, it gives us an indication of what the economic and infection-spread impacts will be,” Tweedy said.

State Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine also said the numbers likely will continue climbing. Unemployment claims are reported on Thursday for the previous week, so the numbers are through last Saturday. The numbers for this week are expected to grow when calculated next week.

“They are not slowing down,” LeVine said in a news conference. The fact that new claims for last week were seven times the number from the highest week of the recession was “almost a mind-boggling number.”

The new claims for last week are also about 30 times higher than the similar week in 2019.

Total breakdown for all industries and all counties aren’t immediately available, but the department’s labor experts said some of the hardest-hit industries included:

    Construction, which had more than 28,000 new claims, up more than 438% from the previous week.

    Wholesale trade, with some 5,200 new claims, up 166%.

    Manufacturing, with nearly 14,000 new claims, up 165%.

    Retail trade, with 22,000 new claims, up 153%.

Additional sectors are starting to lay off workers.

The state has paid out $67 million in unemployment benefits since March 1, LeVine said, as a result of what she called “an enormous deluge of demand” coming in through the website and over the phone.

The department has added a checklist for possible recipients to use before applying for benefits and is adding to its Frequently Asked Questions section for businesses and individuals. Recently passed federal legislation will add $600 per week to many workers’ payments and an extra 13 weeks of eligibility.

“We are fully mobilizing to meet the demand and we are bringing in reinforcements,” LeVine said.

The call centers have expanded hours, opening at 7 a.m., and adding Saturday to the normal schedule. In the second half of March, they received about a quarter-million calls and 3.6 million visits to the website.

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