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News >  WA Government

Washington unemployment claim numbers ‘gargantuan,’ commissioner says

UPDATED: Thu., April 30, 2020

OLYMPIA – More than 1 in 5 Washington workers sought some form of unemployment payment last week, in what the head of the agency that administers those claims called “gargantuan numbers.”

Nearly $1 billion in various benefits were paid out in the week ending Saturday, Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine said.

“That is, by far, the largest week of unemployment benefits in our state’s history,” LeVine said.

The requests for unemployment aid ballooned because of new federal programs designed to help shore up the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contract and self-employed workers not previously eligible under the state program became eligible for federal aid, as did people who hadn’t previously met state requirements for a minimum number of hours worked in the past year.

The federal government also began offering an extra pandemic assistance payment of as much as $600 to unemployed workers.

That combination of new claims for state assistance, for federal assistance and for the additional pandemic payment meant the state received nearly 500,000 new claims last week.

Since the first week of March, which the state considers the start of job losses from the pandemic, Washington has had 787,533 workers file for unemployment benefits, and 504,284 of them have received some level of payment. About $1.5 billion in unemployment benefits have been paid out over that period.

The state has a workforce of about 3.6 million, LeVine said, so about 1 in 5 is receiving some level of unemployment payment.

“That’s a staggering amount,” she said.

Not everyone who has filed a new claim is receiving benefits. Some claims still are being processed to obtain missing information and some are being adjudicated, she said. About 80,000 claims are in adjudication.

LeVine acknowledged the department’s phone system continues to be overwhelmed by callers seeking information about rejected or delayed claims. They are adding staff, both to handle calls and to adjudicate claims, but with the agency receiving as many as 100 calls per second, “it is pretty much a pure volume issue.”

The state’s health care and social assistance sector of the job market had the highest number of new claims last week, at 11,061, followed by retail trade with 10,397 new claims; accommodation and food services with 10,049; construction 6,047 and manufacturing 6,045.

In Spokene County, laid-off workers filed 7,794 new jobless claims April 19-25, a 54% increase from the 5,069 claims filed a week prior, according to the department.

In the state data released Thursday, the greatest number of unemployment benefit applications in Spokane County were from health care and social assistance workers, who filed 700 new claims. Retail trade workers filed 684, and workers in the accommodations and food services sector filed 677.

Spokane County workers have filed more than 53,500 new weekly unemployment claims in the six-week period since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the state, according to Employment Security Department data.

Staff writer Amy Edelen contributed to this report.

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