State officials spent the week racing to deliver a complicated package of federal benefits for more than 280,000 Washingtonians left jobless by the pandemic.
The good news: most claimants who were getting federal unemployment benefits in December won’t see a significant interruption, even though President Trump let the programs expire, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) confirmed Thursday.
And some 90,000 Washingtonians will even see a modest windfall: the $550 one-time payment Gov. Inslee authorized last week in case federal benefits lapsed is being paid anyway, starting this week.
“We’re following through on that commitment,” said ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine. “And if some people get an additional payment, I think our economy and our people need it.”
But some of the good news is on hold. An extra $300 a week in new federal unemployment benefits for all claimants won’t be paid until after Jan. 15 as the ESD focuses on rolling out other federal benefits first.
The week also brought a storm of new complaints from claimants over payment delays and other problems.
On Thursday, the ESD website showed that nearly 40,000 claimants were not receiving benefits as of last week and were waiting for the ESD to resolve a problem with their claims. That’s an increase of 56% over the week before, which an agency spokesperson attributed in part to disruptions from the Christmas holiday.
And many claimants say they’re still struggling to reach the agency to deal with problems on their claims. “I sat on hold on the phone [to ESD] for hours yesterday and eventually gave up,” said Olivia Spencer, a Whatcom County resident who applied for benefits after losing her restaurant hostess job in March, and who didn’t get her expected payment the week before Christmas.
The challenges come amid a surge in layoffs as continued public health restrictions put pressure on employers.
Last week, Washington received 19,192 new, or “initial,” claims for unemployment benefits, an increase of 1,596, or 9.1%, from the previous week, the ESD reported Thursday.
Nationally, initial claims last week fell 2.4% to 787,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
On top of surging claims, Washington, like other states, is rushing to roll out delayed federal legislation that will replace or extend expiring federal benefits from last March’s CARES Act — but will also require considerable bureaucratic effort.
These benefits include a new $300 weekly payment, known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, for anyone now receiving state or federal unemployment benefits; as of last week, 281,328 people in Washington were receiving benefits and would likely be eligible.
The $300 benefit runs from Dec. 27 (retroactively) to March 14, and is intended to partly replace a $600-a-week federal benefit payment that expired in the summer.
Congress also extended several pandemic benefits that expired Dec. 26.
The Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation provides additional weeks of benefits to workers whose regular state unemployment benefits have run out.
Congress also extended through March 14 the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for workers, such as the self-employed or part-timers, who don’t usually qualify for regular state unemployment.
In December, roughly 95,000 Washingtonians were receiving PUA payments, which as of September averaged $323 a week.
But the new federal benefits came with numerous challenges.
Fears that the PUA benefits would expire before new benefits went into effect led Inslee to authorize one-time $550 payments as a stopgap for PUA recipients.
Though it turns out that most PUA recipients won’t see a big interruption in their federal benefit, the agency is issuing the $550 payments anyway, using $54 million left over in federal pandemic funding. An ESD spokesperson confirmed that the more than 90,000 eligible PUA claimants were paid this week.
“From the state’s standpoint, it has to hurt that they are paying $54 million … that they could have theoretically avoided if Trump hadn’t waited until Sunday to sign the CARES continuation bill,” said Anne Paxton, policy director at the Seattle- and Spokane-based Unemployment Law Project. “But Inslee is honoring his promise.”
However, roughly 4,000 Washingtonians who have existing problems with their PUA claims won’t receive that payment until those issues are resolved, the ESD said.
The federal benefits also pose technical challenges for the ESD.
For example, ESD is still awaiting for full details on new verification requirements that the federal government is making on PUA beneficiaries that “may require a lot of programming and customer service training,” LeVine said in an email earlier this week.
That’s one reason the ESD is delaying the $300 weekly payment until after Jan. 15 while it focus on other programs, such as PUA, that were about to expire. “There’s some stuff that we’re moving forward on and then there are some things that we’re really holding off on because it requires much more clarification,” said LeVine.
LeVine said the $300 payments will be paid automatically — claimants needn’t take any action. For other benefits, such as PUA, LeVine said claimants should continue filing their weekly claims, and that benefits, even if delayed, will catch up. She also urged claimants to avoid calling the ESD “if it’s not absolutely necessary.”
Some claimants may be skeptical of such assurances. ESD has received heavy criticism for delays in payments, a glitchy website, and hourslong waits to get through on the phone to customer service.
ESD says it has addressed some of those problems.
But this week, some claimants said they had trouble filing new claims. Others said their ESD accounts showed that their claims were “pending.” On Thursday, an ESD spokesperson said that was due to a computer error that occurred as the ESD responded to the delayed benefits after Trump was late in signing the legislation, the agency. The error affected 28,000 accounts and has been corrected, the spokesperson said.
Stephanie Lynn Hagelgans, 40, a Pierce County resident who lost her job at a local preschool in March, says her family relies on her PUA benefit for household expenses that her husband’s salary can’t cover. For them, the payment delays and other glitches were agonizing.
“We — and I feel like a lot of families or individuals — are one missed payment away from disaster and … financial ruin,” Hagelgans said.