Fewer Washingtonians filed for jobless benefits last week than the week before, but those who did faced possible delays in a second round of emergency federal benefits after President Donald Trump demanded last-minute changes in the legislation.
“You can’t cut the checks … until everything is signed, sealed and delivered,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, chair of the committee that oversees the state unemployment system. “And if the president doesn’t sign [the stimulus bill] that means we’re going to get delayed even longer.”
The uncertainty comes as Washingtonians filed 17,596 new, or “initial,” claims for regular unemployment benefits last week, a decrease of nearly 10% from the previous week, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported Wednesday. The claims data, normally released Thursday, posted early because of the Christmas holiday.
Nationally, initial claims fell 10% last week to 803,000, the Labor Department said Wednesday.
Although new claims declined in Washington, they remain roughly twice as high as the same week last year. The total number of Washingtonians receiving unemployment benefits last week was 286,102, a decrease of 3.5% from the previous week, ESD reported.
Many jobless workers would receive an additional $300 a week in emergency federal benefits through March 14 under a new COVID-19 stimulus bill passed this week by Congress.
The bill would also extend through March 14 the existing emergency federal benefits, including a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefit that has been paid to many gig workers and others who are typically ineligible for regular state unemployment benefits but is set to expire Dec. 26.
But prospects for the bill were clouded Tuesday after Trump demanded Congress boost a separate one-time stimulus payment from $600 to $2,000 for most Americans.
Earlier in December, Gov. Jay Inslee promised to step in with a relief package of at least $54 million if Congress failed to extend the PUA benefit. “We are hopeful that the federal plan goes through and will act if it doesn’t,” Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
“If the federal bill falls through, it’s critical that the state fulfill the commitment made by the governor to extend PUA at the state level,” added Sage Wilson, spokesperson for Working Washington, an advocacy group that has been closely monitoring the state’s unemployment system.
Economists have said the elevated level of unemployment claims in Washington reflects seasonal layoffs as well as the ongoing effects of the pandemic and public health restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Six percent of Washington’s resident civilian workforce of 3.8 million was unemployed in November, the most recent month for which data is available from the ESD. That’s around 45% more than were unemployed in November 2019.
November’s unemployment rate of 6% was unchanged from October’s, but the state’s workforce also shrank by 155,400 jobs during that span, the ESD reported.
Since March 8, the ESD has paid out $13.1 billion in benefits, roughly two-thirds of that from federal funds, to slightly more than 1.09 million individuals.
But some Washingtonians are still seeing delays in receiving unemployment benefits.
As of last week, 24,900 claimants were not receiving benefits and were waiting for the ESD to resolve a question with their claim, the agency reported. That was down 7.2% from the previous week. The average time needed to resolve a delayed claim was 9.8 weeks, unchanged from a week earlier.
For claims without issues, however, the average time to receive the first payment after filing was 14.3 days last week, compared with 13.4 days the previous week and 12.4 days in mid-October.
“The real question for unemployed people, of course, is when are they going to see benefits,” said Wilson. “And aside from the federal chaos, speedy processing remains an issue here in [Washington].”