As the state enters the third month of the coronavirus crisis, the threshold for what counts as “good” economic news seems to get lower by the week.
On Thursday, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported that it received 100,762 weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance. It said that the total number of Washington residents who have filed a claim during the crisis has now topped 810,000, or more than two-and-a-half times the peak of the Great Recession.
It also acknowledged that roughly a third of those people haven’t yet received any unemployment benefits.
That’s people like Maxwell Bunting, 28, a Marysville resident who lost his bartending job in mid-March but has been prevented from filing a claim by a technical issue on the department’s website. Despite repeated attempts to reach the department’s help desk, Bunting said, “I haven’t been able to get a hold of anyone to get it resolved.”
But in a sign of just how extreme the times have become, Thursday’s report represents modest improvements.
The 100,762 initial claims received for the week ending May 2 is almost 27% fewer than the state received the prior week. Nationally, initial claims also fell last week, by 17.6%, to 3.2 million, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
Likewise, the 810,538 individuals in Washington who have filed a claim since March 7 is up less than 3% from the prior week, suggesting that layoffs may have peaked in the state.
Indeed, while ESD officials expect the total number of workers who have filed a claim to keep growing until Washington’s economy is more fully reopened — which is tentatively scheduled to occur over the next several months — “we do not expect any more major waves of increases in initial claims,” said Suzi LeVine, department commissioner, during a news conference Thursday.
And all those unpaid benefits? On Thursday, LeVine said that the ESD has addressed many of the technical and capacity issues that have slowed the claims approval process. She now expects to “get some really substantial momentum through our backlog within just the next two weeks.” Case in point: The number of claims requiring manual review fell by 40% from a week earlier, to just 57,000.
Still, LeVine acknowledged that it may be “mid-June” before “100%” of the backlog has been cleared, in part because many claims must be carefully screened for errors, discrepancies, and, increasingly, attempted fraud. “Crises like these bring out the bad actors, especially when there’s so much money at stake,” said LeVine, referring to the $600 federal payment that has been added to all weekly benefits.
“I’m hoping it is sooner and faster,” said LeVine, adding that she knows the delays represent a hardship for many. “But I also know that I need to set people’s expectations appropriately.”
The department also acknowledged Thursday that the number of individuals who received a payment last week — 504,139 — was actually 134 fewer than the week before.
LeVine urged workers to familiarize themselves with the claims procedure before trying to file. In many cases, workers who are otherwise eligible for state or federal benefits aren’t paid because they have made small errors in filing, or haven’t continued to file a claim each week they remain unemployed, or have not filed a separate claim for federal benefits.
Thursday’s claims report also offered a snapshot of the battered state economy as it continues to move through an unprecedented crisis.
Hardest hit last week was the state’s health care and social assistance sector, which saw 10,272 initial claims. That was followed by retail (8,489), accommodation and food services (8,435), manufacturing (5,409) and construction (4,849). Five weeks ago, all five sectors saw substantially greater losses.
King County continues to lead the state in job losses, although at a reduced clip. Last week’s 31,550 initial claims represent a 33% drop from five weeks ago, when the county hit a peak, thus far, of 47,233 initial claims.
Thursday’s report also captured the scale of government relief efforts. Last week, the state paid out more than $639 million in benefits and since March 7 has paid out nearly $2.14 billion.
In response to concerns that state unemployment funds might run out before all eligible workers receive their benefits, LeVine took pains to explain that more than two-thirds of the money being paid out during the pandemic comes from the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package enacted in March.
“So we want to emphasize that the money will not run out,” she said.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this story.