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State jobless benefits top $272M since pandemic took hold; more than 500,000 apply

OLYMPIA – Claims of newly unemployed workers seeking benefits continued to flood Employment Security offices last week, bringing to more than a quarter billion dollars the amount Washington has paid out since layoffs from the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the state.

The only good news – which may be short-lived – is that the number of new claims was again down slightly from the historic peak reached two weeks ago. But more than a half-million Washington workers have applied for unemployment benefits since early March, and new claims are expected to go up again when new guidelines expand eligibility and the federal government adds $600 in extra benefits.

The Employment Security Trust Fund is not in danger of becoming insolvent, Commissioner Suzi LeVine said, despite the promise of a 13-week extension, broader eligibility and the boost in payments tied to the pandemic. The federal government will reimburse the state for those expenses.

Washington has the strongest unemployment insurance program in the country, which had $4.7 billion before the pandemic crisis started, LeVine said. The trust fund is supported by taxes paid by employers.

“We are drawing heavily on our trust fund,” she said. “Our hope is that, as we look ahead … there will be conversations about how to help the states backfill so that businesses won’t ultimately have to be burdened by this when we do the evaluation of trust fund solvency at the end of the year.”

The department reported Thursday that it paid some amount of unemployment benefits to nearly 266,000 workers, a record for a program that began in the Great Depression. Payments totaled $125 million in the week that ended April 11.

The department received 143,000 new claims this week, which was down about 16% from the total number of new claims filed the week before, which was down slightly from the record week for new claims that ended March 28.

Since early March, the state has paid more than $272 million in benefits to unemployed workers.

But hundreds of thousands of people who were filing new claims aren’t yet eligible for unemployment benefits, LeVine said, because they are contract workers, self-employed or didn’t work a minimum number of hours last year. That will change over the weekend when provisions of the CARES Act take effect. That bill, which Congress passed and President Trump signed in late March, aims to help workers affected by the pandemic-wracked economy.

The department will take down its online application pages Saturday to make changes that accommodate the new federal rules on eligibility. The new forms are expected to be up and running Sunday, although it is a “bare bones” system that may be “a bit clunky,” LeVine said.

People who are newly eligible under the CARES Act will fill out a form that will tell them they are ineligible under state rules, but it will provide them a link they must click to get to a supplemental form to determine their eligibility under the new federal program.

Before new applicants call the department hotline, LeVine stressed they should go to the department’s website to check for their eligibility, follow the checklist for what’s required for the application and sign up for a Secure Washington Account to receive the payments electronically.

The industry with the highest number of new claims last week was manufacturing, with 33,337 new claims. Construction had 17,291 new claims, retail trade 15,911 new claims, health care and social assistance 12,783 new claims, and accommodation and food services 11,233 new claims.

Spokane County had 8,382 new claims, which was down from the previous week total of 11,347.