Jobless claims surged in Washington last week, but the uptick was driven largely by bookkeeping issues in the state’s unemployment system, not an increase in layoffs.
Last week, Washingtonians filed 16,605 new, or initial, claims for unemployment benefits, up 58% from a week earlier. That sharp increase, which follows three weeks of steady declines, stems mainly from two technical issues in the way the state’s Employment Security Department counts jobless workers, state officials said.
Part of the surge comes as Washingtonians who lost jobs early in the pandemic and have received 52 weeks of unemployment benefits are now required under state regulations to refile. A similar refiling spike occurred in early April.
Much of the rest of the surge reflects a bookkeeping change related to federal pandemic benefits that Congress created for workers who use up the 26 weeks of unemployment benefits available through state systems.
In the ESD’s system, some workers’ applications for these long-term benefits were inadvertently attached to workers’ older state unemployment claims. When the issue was corrected, it showed up in the agency’s system as a new claim, said ESD spokesperson Nick Demerice.
Nationally, new jobless claims fell 6.7% to 507,000 last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.
The ESD also released some data on processing times for claims. As of last week, approximately 10,000 claimants were not receiving benefits and were waiting for the ESD to resolve a question with their claim — a marked decrease from late December, when nearly 24,900 claimants were waiting for resolution. The average time needed to resolve a delayed claim was 9.7 weeks, which was almost unchanged from December.
The agency stopped posting some of the data about processing and resolution times around the end of 2020, but provided the data in response to a request by The Seattle Times and will be regularly posting such data this summer under guidelines passed this year by the state Legislature.
The ESD also reported Thursday that its customer service call centers received 392,472 calls in April, a 20% increase over March. Average wait times rose 9%, to more than 41 minutes in April, while the number of abandoned calls fell 24%, to 18,125. The number of times callers were unable to get through due to “high call volume” increased 41% to 312,303 in April. (The call center data released Thursday did not include outgoing calls made by ESD agents or by National Guard members who have been assigned to help the ESD.)
In Washington, the number of overall claims — new claims plus ongoing claims that claimants must file each week to receive benefits — rose to 436,114 last week, a nearly 8% increase over the prior week.
Last week, the ESD paid benefits on 306,846 individual claims, a slight decrease from the prior week. Because individuals can have multiple claims, the number of those claims is often slightly higher than the number of individual claimants.
Since March 2020, more than 1 million Washingtonians have received more than $17.9 billion in jobless benefits, with about two-thirds of the money coming from the federal government.
By comparison, in each of the previous 10 years, the ESD’s annual payout averaged just over $1 billion, the ESD said.
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