OLYMPIA – The number of Washington workers filing initial unemployment benefits increased slightly last week as the state Employee Security Department continues to resolve about 71,000 backlogged claims caused by record request issues or fraudulent claims using stolen identity information.
Initial unemployment claims increased 2% June 14-20 when compared to the previous week, while total jobless claims in the state increased 3.3%, the department reported Thursday. About 2.1 million people have filed initial unemployment claims since the COVID-19 pandemic started affecting the state’s economy in March. The number of initial jobless claims filed last week in Spokane County increased by 11% over the previous week.
New jobless claims in the state are starting to level off at about 29,000 initial unemployment claims a week after peaking in March, department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said.
“While there’s a significant drop from our peak, we have leveled off at what are still record-high numbers, exceeding what we saw in the peak of the recession,” LeVine said.
It is too early to call the steady weekly increases in claims a trend, said Steven Ross, the department’s labor market information director. It is normal to see a slight variability in numbers, even without a pandemic or fraud crisis.
A week ago, about 81,000 claims for unemployment benefits filed since March 8 were awaiting resolution. In the past week, that number was reduced by almost 10,000, Levine said. The goal is to resolve all claims by July 31, starting with those who have been waiting the longest, she said. Those people should have their claims resolved by July 6.
Since the pandemic took hold in the state in March, the department has paid more than $6.5 billion in benefits, a combination of federal and state funding.
By the end of the month, LeVine said the department hopes to decrease the average wait time to process a claim from 6½ to four weeks. The standard time is generally three weeks.
Most of those claims involve complex issues, such as questions about work history or how the employer records certain information, LeVine said. Some of the claims, however, still could be related to fraudulent actions using stolen information.
The department brought in 50 Washington National Guard members last week to help clear the backlog partially caused by what LeVine called the largest fraud attack the state has experienced.
The department was able to clear thousands of identity-issue claims during the past few weeks, with the National Guard members clearing about 8,000 issues in just two days, LeVine said. About 17,000 identity-issue claims still need to be reviewed.
Fraudulent claims cost the state more than a half-billion dollars, and the department has recovered more than $350 million of that – although LeVine said last week some of the money may never be recovered.
“We’ve seen very clear evidence that the tactics we put in place are working,” LeVine said.
In Spokane County, initial jobless claims increased to 1,718 from the 1,617 filed the week prior, a jump of 11% following an 8% decrease the week of June 7-13. Similar to the rest of the state, the initial unemployment claims in Spokane County seem to be leveling off after the sharp increase during the past few months, said Doug Tweedy, regional economist for the Employment Security Department.
The initial claims in Spokane County come mostly from workers in the health care, education and construction industries, Tweedy said.
It is troublesome to see so many people still initially applying for unemployment assistance, Tweedy said, but it is too early to tell if there is a trend.
“Things are still undetermined,” he said.
The county is experiencing a decrease in people on continued unemployment claims, which is a good indication people are going back to work since the county entered Phase 2 of Gov. Inslee’s reopening plan, Tweedy said. The number of continuing jobless claims in the county dropped from 21,981 to 20,887 last week.
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