New claims from out-of-work Washington residents seeking state unemployment benefits and special federal programs fell last week, a significant drop after the previous week’s record.
All counties and most industry sectors had fewer workers filing their initial claims for benefits, and the total number of claims being paid out remained steady at about 500,000.
But that wasn’t a sign the state was recovering from that shock so much as it was past what Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine called the “major wave” of the previous week. The new requests for aid would still be staggering in regular times, with more than 100,700 new applications for the standard state unemployment benefits, down from 137,600 new applications the week before.
Even larger drops were recorded in new claims for federal programs that expand eligibility to groups the state system doesn’t cover, such as contract workers and self-employed individuals, and for the $600 extra payments available to many unemployed workers through the federal coronavirus relief bill, known as the CARES Act. Those benefits were first available last week.
Almost two-thirds of the $639 million sent to unemployed workers last week was from federal sources and a third from state funds. That total was down from about $1 billion in benefits paid the previous week.
LeVine labeled as “a myth” any suggestion the state trust fund will go broke and not be able to pay unemployment benefits.
“The money will not run out. Our trust fund is solid, and most of the benefits are coming from federal funds,” she said during a news conference to discuss the latest numbers.
The state’s largest counties saw reductions of 20% or more in the number of new claims being filed. In Spokane County, new claims dropped to 6,056 from 7,794, down 28%.
Unemployment figures for April are scheduled to be released Friday. But the number of claims does not equal the number of people who are out of work, LeVine said. Some unemployed workers don’t file because they aren’t eligible, and some unemployed workers file claims for state and federal programs, which are counted separately.
Although the unemployment numbers swelled quickly as the economy reeled, LeVine said she couldn’t predict how quickly they could drop.
“I don’t know that anything could reverse at the same pace,” she said.
The Employment Security Department continues to struggle with the volume of claims and the frustration of some people who are unable to file or resolve rejected claims online and can’t get through on overwhelmed phone lines.
As of May 1, the department had an estimated 57,000 people who had filed for unemployment but have problems with the claims that need adjudication, LeVine said. Its goal is to add adjudicators and look for common problems that can be quickly addressed, and clear up that backlog by mid-June, she said.
To avoid problems with new filings or delays in appeals, LeVine offered several tips. New claimants should read the tips and follow the checklist on the Employment Security website, esd.wa.gov. They should also make sure there aren’t any conflicts in the information they file, such as a different name on the claim than they have for their Social Security Number.
Those waiting on an appeal should answer phone calls from 1-(800) numbers, even if they normally screen those out to avoid telemarketers, because it might be from a department employee. They should also check the spam filter for their email account for correspondence from the department.
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