In the latest reminder of the economic damage from the pandemic, Washington workers are still losing jobs in historically high numbers more than six months after COVID-19 first struck the state.
And while the state has paid out billions of dollars in unemployment insurance since then, tens of thousands of workers who’ve applied for benefits still don’t know when, or if, they’ll receive any, according to labor advocates and state data.
“We get hundreds of calls — hundreds and hundreds of calls every week,” said John Tirpak, executive director of the Unemployment Law Project (ULP), a Seattle- and Spokane-based advocacy group representing workers whose jobless claims have been denied by the state.
On Tuesday, ULP sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee on behalf of “tens of thousands of Washingtonians” who are trying to appeal denied claims.
Those concerns come as the state reported another unusually large batch of weekly jobless claims.
For the week ending Aug. 29, workers filed 18,172 new, or “initial,” claims for regular unemployment insurance, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported Thursday.
That’s down 1.2% from the prior week — the seventh consecutive weekly decline, but it’s still nearly four times higher than the same week in 2019. That’s more evidence that employers continue to cut back despite efforts to reopen the economy amid a general decline in new COVID-19 infections statewide.
“Yes, we’re seeing a much lower level of claims than we saw in March, April, May of this year,” during the worst of the pandemic layoffs, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional economist with ESD who covers the Seattle area. But “people are still getting laid off in record numbers and coming to us.”
Nationally, initial unemployment claims fell nearly 13% last week, to 881,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.
In Washington, the total number of workers receiving unemployment benefits last week was 348,102. That’s down slightly from the prior week, but still higher than the peak reached by the state during the Great Recession.
Last week’s claims illustrated the ever-changing pattern of job losses during the pandemic.
For example, in the hotel and restaurant sectors, which were severely affected in the spring, initial claims dropped 9% from the prior week, to 1,965. But claims by workers in educational services rose 39%, to 464.
Since early March, the ESD has paid out more than $10 billion in unemployment benefits, about two-thirds of which have been federal funds.
A large share of those relief funds came in the form of a weekly federal payment of $600 that supplemented regular state unemployment benefits. But that benefit expired in July and Congress has yet to enact any replacement.
Many unemployed workers will be eligible for a new $300 weekly payment under a temporary federal program. But those payments, which ESD will begin processing Sept. 21, are only guaranteed to last three weeks.
Separately, the ESD has suspended the job-search requirement through Oct. 1. That means claimants can answer “no” when asked if they made an “active search for work” when they file their weekly claim.
ESD also reiterated that it is working to resolve delays with the claims of tens of thousands of workers.
As of Aug. 29, 19,796 claimants, or 1.5% of total applicants, were not receiving benefits and were waiting for the agency to resolve questions about their claims, according to agency data. That’s down from 24,291 as of Aug. 15.
ULP and other advocates also have criticized ESD for being slow to process appeals by workers whose claims have been denied.
In years past, ESD has quickly forwarded the appeals to the state Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which rules on each case. But that process has dragged out during the pandemic as ESD struggles to process hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims.
On Thursday, ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the number of individuals waiting to have appeals resolved was 20,661 as of Aug. 28. She said the agency expected to have those resolved by the end of September, either by forwarding them for a hearing or by “redetermining” the denial.
“We know that this is still a large number of people waiting and are dedicating incremental resources to quickly work through that backlog,” said LeVine in a statement to The Seattle Times. She added that the ESD had stepped up the number of appeals forwarded to OAH, from 2,335 in June to 5,402 in August.
The ULP’s Tirpak remains skeptical. If ESD is just now resolving appeals that were filed in April, he said, “how does that look for people who are requesting hearings now [for] new applications?”