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Washington unemployment officials working to speed, simplify process

Peter Keckemet looks up at the American flag fluttering from the front of his chocolate shop, closed in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, in the Pike Place Market Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Seattle. A state unemployment official told Spokane business leaders Thursday that her agency is working to provide help to out-of-work employees and self-employed gig workers. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

An official with the Washington state system that processes unemployment claims told Spokane-area business leaders Thursday that her agency is adding staff but still can’t keep up with the volume of calls and questions coming from people who have lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mariana Hernandez, the lead policy analyst for the state Employment Security Department, gave an update on those efforts during a webinar hosted by Greater Spokane Incorporated and the Spokane Valley and West Plains chambers of commerce. She recommended unemployed workers go online to apply for the quickest results.

“As you guys know, our agency has had just an influx of workload in all areas,” Hernandez said. “We are trying to deal with that workload in various ways. We’re in the process of hiring more people and have also directed different resources to our claim centers to be able to assist with the call volume that we’re getting.”

The state has expanded operating hours and has continually updated its website “to help claimants navigate the system,” she said. “One of our main goals right now is to get workers who apply for unemployment benefits paid as quickly as possible.”

She noted that not all people who seek those benefits will get them. To be eligible for standard benefits, employees would have had to have worked a minimum of 680 hours in the past 18 months and lost their job at no fault of their own.

However, some of the old rules, including those requiring workers to actively search for new jobs, have been put on hold.

“In our normal world, in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits, you have to be able and available and actively looking for work,” Hernandez said. “What this means to claimants is that starting in March, or going back to March 8, claimants will not be penalized if they did not look for work. This is in place until further notice.”

The agency has also implemented an emergency rule to allow workers and employers to request up to 12 weeks of “standby” while nonessential businesses remain shut down by Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order, which currently is set to expire May 4.

“What standby means is that it allows for full-time and part-time workers to not have to look for work if they are still attached to their employer,” she said. “So if the employer has provided them a return-to-work day within 12 weeks … they don’t have to look for other work.”

While the rule changes should make it easier for traditional out-of-work employees to get benefits, Hernandez said recently passed federal legislation also has additional ways for gig workers and others who have exhausted their unemployment benefits to get relief as well.

One is called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which makes money available to those who have already exhausted their allotted benefits prior to the stay-at-home order as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s pretty much an extension of their unemployment benefits,” she said.

Another program is called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. It provides $600 per week on top of regular unemployment benefits for anyone filing between March 29 and July 25 of this year.

A third, separate program is calledPandemic Unemployment Assistance, which would be available to gig workers.

“It’s a completely separate benefit program,” Hernandez said. “And the intent of this program is to assist people who do not qualify for regular unemployment benefits. So those people who are self-employed, independent contractors or individuals who do not have the 680 hours that is required.”

It would also be available to those who are underemployed, but those people would have had to have lost their income as a result of the pandemic, she noted.

“We can start backdating up until Feb. 8, which is the first week that would be available for us to pay out,” Hernandez said. “So once we’ve determined that you’re eligible for the program, if you were affected back then, then we can backdate the application to that time frame.”

However, there’s a catch. Hernandez said workers seeking benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, should apply now for unemployment benefits even though Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is not yet up and running.

“So if somebody is an independent contractor or self-employed … that’s where PUA comes in,” she said. “What we are asking folks to do is that in order for you to be determined eligible, you have to have been determined that you are not eligible for regular unemployment.”

She said gig workers and those who are self-employed should go online and apply in the current system so they can get denied the normal benefit.

“That’s the first step,” Hernandez said. “And then, like I said, we are shooting for April 18. That’s when PUA is going to go live within our system.”

Once the website goes live, then those workers who didn’t qualify for normal benefits can seek compensation through the federal program, Hernandez said.

“The system will actually automatically give you the option to apply for PUA because you have already applied for unemployment benefits,” she said.