Washington residents continued filing unemployment claims last week by the tens of thousands as the state’s employers moved to reduce their payrolls to meet the economic realities created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laid-off workers in Washington filed 82,435 new jobless claims last week, but state officials warned it could be “the calm before the storm” as they anticipate processing close to 1 million new claims beginning next week.
The number of new claims filed April 12-18 was a decrease of 42% from a week prior, bringing the total number of claims filed in the state to 605,514 since the pandemic began to hit nation’s economy, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department.
“It is hard to imagine that the fifth-highest week of claims in Washington state history could be considered the calm before the storm, but that is certainly what we saw last week,” Suzi LeVine, employment security commissioner, said in a statement.
Spokane County workers filed 5,069 jobless claims the week of April 12-18, a 40% decrease from the 8,382 claims filed a week prior. Laid-off workers in the county have filed 45,736 unemployment claims in the past five weeks.
In data released by the state Thursday, the greatest number of unemployment benefit applications statewide were from retail trade workers, who filed 9,485 new claims. Health care and social assistance workers filed 9,134 new claims., and manufacturing workers filed 8,335.
Only one sector – management of companies and enterprises – posted a gain in new claims with 214 applications filed last week, representing a 69% increase from a week prior, according to the department.
Although initial unemployment claims for April 12-18 were among the most on record, that total does not reflect benefit applications resulting from expansion of eligibility under the federal CARES Act, LeVine said.
The state employment services department updated its system Saturday to enable provisions under the CARES Act that expanded unemployment benefit eligibility for self-employed workers, independent contractors and others who didn’t work a minimum number of 680 hours last year. The update also increased the weekly unemployment benefit by $600 and extended the time frame for unemployment assistance by 13 weeks.
After the system went live late that night, the department received more applications in a 36-hour period than the week ending March 28, which generated a record-setting 182,000 applications.
The department has paid out more than $900,000 in benefits since Saturday night, bringing the total unemployment benefits payout to nearly $1.4 billion, LeVine said.
Specific claim numbers reflecting the influx of newly eligible workers will be released April 30 , she said.
The department’s website struggled to handle the influx of claimants over the weekend.
With so many people eligible to file weekly claims, the department expects more than 900,000 to be filed online and via its phone system beginning Sunday, LeVine said, adding it’s a staggering amount for the system to handle.
“Prior to the launch of this update, I emphasized that, to get money to Washingtonians faster, the user experience with the update would be ‘clunky,’ and this proved to be true,” LeVine said in a statement. “While we have been able to serve a record number of people, we know that there are many still struggling to get through our application process or to get through on the phone.”
Although the department has substantially expanded its website bandwidth, LeVine is asking claimants to help “level the load” on its system.
One misconception is that weekly claims need to be filed on Sunday, but they can be filed Sunday through Saturday night online. Claimants can also file over the automated phone system until Friday night, according to the department.
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