Washington’s overloaded unemployment system has been a vexation for many of the hundreds of thousands of newly jobless workers trying to file claims.
But those frustrations may be forgotten when the benefit checks start coming.
Thanks to an infusion of federal emergency funds, weekly unemployment benefits for many lower-income workers in Washington will equal — or even exceed — what they were earning before being laid off, according to the state Employment Security Department (ESD).
For example, a worker laid off from a $45,000-a-year job will see $1,033 each week in benefits, the department said. That’s the equivalent of an annual salary of $53,716, or 19% more than the pre-layoff salary. (Though, to be clear, unemployment benefits won’t last a year.)
That benefit check includes the $433 the worker would get under Washington’s existing unemployment insurance program, plus another $600 a week in federal coronavirus stimulus money that every worker on unemployment gets, regardless of pre-layoff pay.
Likewise, a worker making $30,000 a year (roughly what you earn on a $14 hourly wage) can expect a combined benefit of $888 a week. That’s the equivalent of $46,176 a year, or half again as much as the worker’s original salary. The minimum weekly benefit for all unemployed workers will be $788.
The “break-even” worker will be one who is laid off a $62,500-a-year job: Their benefits will work out to the equivalent of a $62,452 annual salary, according to state figures.
“There is a major effort happening to get money into the economy, into people’s pockets as quickly as possible and we are a part of that,” said ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine during a press call last week.
Even workers who made more than $62,500 will see a better-than-usual unemployment check. A worker laid off from a job that paid $85,000 or more will get $1,390 a week. For these workers, the new benefits won’t fully replace the old salary — but they’re substantially more than the state-only benefit, which maxes out at $790 a week.
(Washington’s maximum benefit is the second-highest in nation, after only Massachusetts, according to recruitment firm Zippia.)
A caveat: While the $600 weekly payments are technically available starting March 29, most claimants in Washington state won’t see the extra money until after April 18.
That’s because the ESD is still upgrading its claim system to disburse federal money and to accept jobless claims from workers who are normally ineligible for state unemployment insurance, such as independent contractors. Under the federal stimulus bill, these state-ineligible workers can get temporary federal unemployment insurance, which is paid through state unemployment systems. But state officials say that even applicants who delayed in filing claims will receive all earlier federal benefits they’re entitled to.
If the current package of federal and state benefits seems unusually large, it is.
In 2010, during the Great Recession, weekly state benefits payments averaged just $380 and maxed out at $570. The massiveness of the current benefit package reflects the fears of some policymakers that the depth of the pandemic crisis could more deeply damage the economy, absent a much larger government bailout.
Still, not everyone thinks the large benefits are such a good idea, said Jacob Vigdor, a University of Washington economist who studies labor markets. In Congress, some lawmakers voiced concerns that high benefits could have unintended consequences and could “lead some employers to lay off workers that they might otherwise keep on the job, or lead some employees to ask to be laid off,” Vigdor said.
But Vigdor thinks those concerns should be allayed by the limited duration of the coronavirus benefits.
The extra $600 a week from the federal government will only last through July 25, according to the ESD, though it’s possible Congress could extend the program. After that, unemployed workers will receive just the state benefits, or equivalent federal benefits for workers who don’t qualify for state benefits.
What that means, Vigdor said, is that lower-wage workers receiving an extra-large benefit during the pandemic may end up using the additional money to live on next fall if the economy hasn’t fully recovered and they haven’t been able to find a job.
“The money isn’t going to make anybody rich,” Vigdor said. “It’s targeted at individuals who were in the most economically precarious positions at the start of the pandemic, and eases the worries about how they will pay the rent or feed their families for a few months.”