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Coronavirus wave puts 133,000 out of work last week in Washington

In this March 18, 2020 photo, visitors to the Department of Labor are turned away at the door by personnel due to closures over coronavirus concerns in New York. A record-high number of people applied for unemployment benefits last week as layoffs engulfed the United States in the face of a near-total economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus. The surge in weekly applications for benefits far exceeded the previous record set in 1982. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)
By Jim Camden and Amy Edelen The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – A tidal wave of unemployment from the COVID-19 outbreak washed across the state last week, adding more than 133,000 people to the state’s jobless rolls, Washington officials said Thursday.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in volume and velocity in the history of the unemployment insurance program, and that goes back to the 1930s,” Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said.

The percentage increase was among the highest in Spokane County, where new unemployment claims rose to 8,766 last week, about 18 times greater than the 455 new claims the week before.

For comparison, unemployment insurance claims in Spokane County during spring 2009 – the Great Recession’s peak – totaled more than 4,600, according to seasonally adjusted data from the Washington State Employment Security Department.

The number of people seeking jobless benefits in the county likely will be added to next week after Huntwood Industries laid off most of its 500-employee workforce at its Liberty Lake plant Thursday. The YMCA of the Inland Northwest has informed the Employment Security Department it is expecting to lay off 500 starting Saturday.

Spokane County may be seeing more of an increase in unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic compared to the Great Recession because current eligibility requirements are less restrictive, said Grant Forsyth, chief economist for Avista Corp.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. economy grew for 126 continuous months beginning in June 2009, marking the longest period of economic growth in history. As a result, the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak came as a shock to many, Forsyth said.

Unemployment claims are a leading indicator of a region’s economy, and it’s typical to see the unemployment rate jump three to five months after a spike in claims, Forsyth said.

“Until we have good understanding of the current infection rate and the rate of spread, it’s difficult to get a handle on the impact,” said Forysth, adding it has been typical to see sluggish economic growth for 24 months following a recession.

King County, which already saw jobless claims jump because the outbreak was further advanced, saw an increase of more than 500%, to more than 37,000 new claims. Pierce County had an increase of 845%, to 14,730 new claims, and Snohomish County saw an increase of 888%, to 13,692 new claims.

The figures are for the week of March 15-21. The state reports the previous week’s unemployment claims each Thursday. The numbers for the current week are expected to be higher when released April 2.

The total amount being paid out for unemployment claims by the state takes longer to calculate, so the amount paid out for the week of March 7-14 was $22 million. “We have not seen the money going out for this higher spike,” LeVine said.

Some industries are particularly hard hit, department numbers show:

    In the accommodations and food service categories, about 41,300 workers filed new unemployment claims, more than 10 times the number filing new claims the previous week.

    In the health care and social assistance categories, about 18,900 workers filed new claims, 21 times the number of the previous week.

    In other service categories, more than 9,600 workers filed new claims, 28 times the number as the previous week.

    In the retail trade categories, 8,700 workers filed new claims, up nearly 12 times from the previous week.

    In manufacturing categories, nearly 5,300 workers filed new claims, more than four times as many as the previous week.

Spokane resident Lindi Marcuson, who had been working part time in retail prior to the coronavirus pandemic, was temporarily laid off from her job last week.

She filed for standby status, which, if approved by the Washington State Employment Security Department, allows laid-off employees to temporarily receive unemployment benefits until they return to work.

Marcuson said her claim was initially denied on the basis that part-time workers aren’t eligible for benefits. But Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent emergency rule will allow part-time workers to request 12 weeks of standby benefits.

Marcuson said it’s concerning to be temporarily laid off and wondering how to pay for rent, groceries, gas and other expenses.

“I worried about that with the job,” said Marcuson, adding she was previously denied disability benefits, although she had a traumatic brain injury and is an amputee. “It’s frustrating. I work as much as I can and I love going to work. I’m able to do that, but not able to work 40 hours a week. I’m doing my best working 30 hours a week.”

Standard rules requiring unemployed workers collecting benefits to be looking for work have been waived for the COVID-19 emergency.

But there is good news for those looking for a job, LeVine said.

Some essential businesses that are not closed because of the stay-home order are hiring. The Employment Security Department is also hiring people to handle the rapid increase in claims and questions about benefits, she said. It may hire between 500 and 1,000 workers in the coming weeks, many of them for jobs that will be done from the home.

Information about benefits, claims and job possibilities can be found on the department’s webpage,