Unemployment claims in Washington state dropped for the fifth consecutive week — but the number of people filing remains at historic levels and many of those seeking benefits still haven’t received any weeks and even months after losing their jobs.
Nearly 60,000 workers who have filed for jobless benefits are waiting for the state Employment Security Department (ESD) to resolve those claims, according to data from the state and from an advocacy group.
One of those waiting is Martin Shuer, 66, of Redmond. He filed a jobless claim in March but hasn’t seen a dollar in benefits.
“It’s the 23rd week now without any resolution,” said Shuer, who has driven for Lyft. Despite countless hours on the phone with ESD, “nothing has changed.”
Much of the state’s job market seems caught in a pandemic-induced limbo.
Although the 21,942 new jobless claims received by the ESD for the week ending Saturday represented a 0.9% drop from week before, it was still four times the number filed in the same week last year. Nationally, initial claims for jobless benefits rose nearly 14%, to 1.1 million, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high. On Wednesday, ESD reported that 408,000 Washingtonians were unemployed in July, representing a jobless rate of 10.3%. That was up from June’s revised figure of 10%, and roughly on par with the national unemployment rate of 10.2%.
The data offered more evidence that the quick hiring rebound that occurred in May and June is fading, with only a modest number of jobs added in July amid layoffs that remain well above pre-pandemic levels.
“Over the last three months, nearly half of the jobs lost during the pandemic have come back, but there remains a long way to go,” Paul Turek, ESD’s state economist, said in a statement Wednesday.
Workers did get some good news.
On Thursday, ESD said it is applying for the Lost Wages Assistance program, offered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The program could provide an extra $300 in weekly benefits for three weeks to claimants who have lost work due to the pandemic.
But that will only be a temporary, partial replacement for the $600 weekly federal supplement to state benefits that expired in July.
The situation has been further complicated by often long delays in getting benefits to jobless workers as ESD has struggled with unprecedented claim volumes and a massive fraud scheme disclosed in May.
ESD has worked through much of the backlog — more than 1.3 million workers have received $9.7 billion in state and federal benefits as of Aug. 15 — but a small yet significant fraction remain unpaid.
By the state’s own data, as of Aug. 15, 24,291 claimants were not receiving benefits and waiting for the agency to resolve questions about their claim.
But ESD says that number doesn’t include individuals whose claims have been denied by the agency as ineligible for payment and who have filed an appeal of the decision.
For months, ESD has declined to share how many claimants fall in this category. Labor advocates say the number of claimant appeals has risen substantially during the pandemic. They also say ESD has been slow to resolve those appeals or forward them to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which rules on such cases.
The latter assertion is borne out by data provided by the OAH. During April through August 2019, the average “transfer time” between when a claimant filed an appeal request with ESD and when OAH received that appeal was between three and four days, according to OAH figures.
In 2020, the average transfer time has grown, from 10 days in April to nearly 37 days as of Thursday, OAH data shows.
And those delays reflect only the appeals that are forwarded to OAH by ESD, advocates say. ESD routinely tries to resolve appeals without sending them on for a formal hearing, said agency spokesman Nick Demerice. ESD has declined media requests for either the total number of appeals it has received during the pandemic, or how many appeals it is holding onto for prehearing resolution.
But data obtained through a public records request suggests that, as of July 30, the agency had received 81,792 appeals since March 1, of which 46,479 had been either resolved internally or forwarded to the OAH, according to the Seattle- and Spokane-based Unemployment Law Project, which represents denied claimants and is suing ESD over delays in payments.
According to an estimate by the group, that leaves “at least 35,000” appeals requests that “were still being held at ESD,” said Anne Paxton, the group’s policy director.
ESD did not respond to a request for comment on the Unemployment Law Project’s numbers. But Demerice said earlier the agency has doubled the number of staff working on appeals. OAH says it has been receiving more appeals from ESD recently.
Paxton said she understands that ESD has been laboring under a heavy load. “I do sympathize with them,” she said. “But I have to sympathize with the claimants, too.”
That includes John Bouis, a 68-year-old commercial truck driver from Olympia.
After ESD denied a claim Bouis filed in early March, he requested an appeal but says he never received a response and is taking legal action to force ESD to either resolve or forward the appeal.
The only communication from ESD since then was a demand for identity documents to prove he wasn’t part of this spring’s unemployment-fraud scheme, he says.
“So I had to send them documents so they could continue to ignore my appeal,” says Bouis, with a rueful laugh. “The system is intentionally flawed — and there’s no recourse.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled John Bouis’ name in the final paragraph.