For the tens of thousands of newly jobless residents wondering how to pay April’s rent or cover other expenses, this week brought a mix of good and bad news about state unemployment benefits.
The good: State officials say federal emergency funds will supercharge Washington’s existing unemployment insurance system, including weekly payments for previously uncovered workers; an extra 13 weeks of benefits; and a $600 weekly payment, on top of the regular weekly benefits, for anyone who qualifies under either the state or federal program.
The bad: Washington residents probably won’t see the new dollars before April 18 as the state Employment Security Department upgrades an already overworked system to handle the new federal money and the continued flood of jobless claims.
“We think it’s going to take about three weeks to get it up and running,” said Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine in a video posted Monday.
That wait comes on top of software glitches and other problems that have already dogged many of the nearly 350,000 state residents, including many in King County, who filed unemployment claims during the first four weeks of March.
Among them is 26-year-old Sophie Donlon, who applied for benefits after losing her job at Seattle’s Egyptian Theater March 13. She ended up getting a smaller weekly benefit payment than the state system told her to expect, and now wonders if she’ll face similar problems with the promised additional $600.
“I’m very happy that is out there,” Donlon said of the promised $600, which, on top of her current unemployment payment, will just about replace her lost wages. “But that is also another question mark.”
To resolve questions from people like Donlon, the Employment Security Department (ESD) says it’s working round-the-clock to beef up its claims system.
To handle the nearly twelvefold increase in helpline calls since early March, for example, the department is adding hundreds of customer service workers. Some will be new hires, but many will be state employees reassigned from other agencies, a department spokesperson said. (Traffic to the department’s website is 21 times higher than normal.)
But the larger task will be upgrading the computer systems that receive jobless claims, assesses eligibility and issue unemployment benefits.
To fully cope with the unprecedented job losses from the coronavirus crisis, the state system will not only need to manage tens of thousands of additional applicants each week. It will also need to accept applicants who are typically denied coverage under Washington’s unemployment insurance program — self-employed workers, independent contractors and some gig workers, for example, as well as people who haven’t worked 680 hours in the previous year — but who are now eligible for a weekly federal payment that may be similar to the typical state unemployment benefit.
Making those changes won’t be easy. In effect, the state system must be modified to accept a claim by a previously ineligible applicant and use that ineligibility to give the applicant access to the new federal money. And, ideally, that all needs to happen automatically, so applicants don’t have to wait, see if they are denied state aid and then reapply for federal aid.
“The hope is that as much as possible, or all of that, can be done ‘behind the wall,’ if you will,” said Dan Zeitlin, the department’s policy, data, and performance director.
In other words, Zeitlin said, whether applicants qualify for regular state unemployment benefits or for the new federal funds, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the result should be the same: “You’re part of this program and here’s your weekly payment,” Zeitlin said.
Recipients under either program will receive the extra $600 weekly payment on top of their weekly unemployment benefit — as will people who are already receiving unemployment benefits. But in all cases, recipients will need to file a new claim each week to keep receiving the benefits.
All extra benefits will be retroactive, Zeitlin said, meaning that even recipients who have trouble filing claims will eventually receive all funds they’re qualified for.
However, the state is still waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on when that retroactive date will be, as well as on other issues. Among them is whether the benefit paid out under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program will be equal to the benefit paid out under the state’s current unemployment insurance program.
The department begins the upgrades with several advantages. These include past experience with federal stimulus money from the Great Recession and relatively new technology for its claims-processing system, which was revamped in 2017.
The department has also learned from problems it had with earlier coronavirus-related benefits.
For example, in early March, the state changed its rules to allow people temporarily laid off from part-time jobs to collect benefits without having to search for new employment. But because those changes weren’t fully incorporated into the claims system, many people who tried to apply under the new status had their claims denied. “It was a good policy, but it got ahead of the [software] fix,” Zeitlin said.
This time, Zeitlin said, the department has had more time to prepare for the necessary changes. “At this point, it’s really a matter of continuing that work, testing the system and being ready to launch on April 18,” Zeitlin said.
Whether the state can deliver on that date remains to be seen. Until then, it hopes to reduce the load on the system by asking people who wouldn’t have been eligible under the current program to “wait to apply for unemployment because our system is not set up to accept your application,” said LeVine in a statement Monday.
In the meantime, some of the newly jobless are finding their own ways around the system.
Erin Flemming, a Seattle resident who has been helping a friend apply for unemployment insurance, said the friend was finally able to get through to a customer-service representative last week, but only by calling precisely at 8 a.m., when the call center opened. The friend then had to wait on hold for nearly an hour.
Still, “it was a real relief” to finally get through, Flemming said, adding that “the person we talked to said they hired 70 people the previous day, so it definitely seems like they’re trying!”