In January 2009, the peak of the Great Recession, Washington state had some 316,000 active jobless claims in its unemployment insurance system, the largest number in the department’s history.

This week, that record was blown away by the coronavirus pandemic.

The state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported  Thursday 170,063 new unemployment claims for the week ending April 4, pushing the total of new and existing claims to roughly 485,000, including more than 135,000 in King County alone. Washington’s surge echoed unprecedented national employment numbers, which show 16.8 million Americans have filed for unemployment aid in the last three weeks.

And state officials aren’t sure how long that record will last.

Although last week’s new claims were slightly lower than the prior week’s, the decline may be illusory. Suzi LeVine, ESD commissioner, believes many hundreds of thousands of newly jobless residents are probably waiting to file their claims until billions of dollars of emergency federal unemployment assistance becomes available in mid-April.

“Think of this leveling off as the water receding slightly prior to a tsunami,” LeVine told reporters during her weekly media conference call Thursday. “We’re about to see a flood of demand.”

State officials haven’t yet updated the February unemployment rate of 3.8%.

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But a rough calculation suggests the state’s current unemployment rate has climbed into the low teens, given the total workforce, which was about 3.9 million in February.

King County itself is probably at 13%, up from 3% on Jan 1, according to an estimate by the Downtown Seattle Association.

Whatever it means for the official rate, the rising tide of jobless claims is already putting a huge burden on the state’s social safety net — starting with the Employment Security Department itself, which has been unable to process more than a fraction of those claims.

“I’m in this limbo,” said Robert Jacobs, a South Seattle resident whose work as a substitute teacher and a commercial photographer has vanished and whose unemployment claim has been held up. The reason, he says, is that he only worked around 660 hours last year, just shy of the state’s 680-hour eligibility minimum — even though, technically, he now qualifies for new federal coronavirus aid.

The job losses are also putting pressure on state social services.

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Applications for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program surged from 7,777 during the first week of March to 16,017 in the first week of April, and are now nearly 66% higher than during same week in 2019, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Nonprofits, churches and charities are also feeling the pressure. At Nourish Pierce County, a food bank network in Pierce County, staff have been scrambling to serve hundreds of newcomers, many of them people who have never used a food bank before, says Sue Potter, Nourish Pierce County CEO.

“It’s your teacher, your next-door neighbor, the guy who worked for the department store that closed,” Potter said. Unless job losses slow, she added, “it’s going to deplete our budget pretty quickly.”

That relief isn’t likely to materialize soon.

The ESD estimates the state has at least a million independent contractors — workers who are typically ineligible for state unemployment benefits but who will be able to tap new federal stimulus money. Also in line for federal dollars are people like Jacobs, who came in below the 680-hour minimum for state unemployment insurance.

 

State officials also expect the initial wave of layoffs in public-facing sectors, such as hotels, restaurants and retailers, will be followed by a second wave from shuttered companies that initially tried to keep employees on payroll but now “can no longer carry staff through paid leave or other means,” LeVine said.

A case in point is Kent-based outdoor retailer REI, which said this week many of the roughly 14,000 employees on paid leave since mid-March would be furloughed without pay. An even bigger example: Boeing just sent about 30,000 Washington state workers off without pay while its plants in the state are closed.

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The ESD also expects claims to surge in different parts of the state. While new claims in King County rose 6% over the prior week, to 47,233, Pierce County saw just a 1% increase, to 22,379. Snohomish County was essentially flat at 21,148 new claims. (Potter says many of the people she’s feeding at Nourish Pierce County were actually laid off from jobs they were commuting to in King County.)

By contrast, rural Okanogan County saw a 26% jump in new weekly claims, to 662.

Although state officials said they can’t project how may new claims to expect statewide in coming weeks, “we are preparing for hundreds of thousands,” LeVine said.

That prospect has the department racing to upgrade its claims system so it can use those emergency federal funds to pay benefits to a much larger set of workers. Those upgrades will be done April 18, the state says.

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In the meantime, the department has launched efforts to help prospective applicants prepare for the often complicated filing process. It’s also urging applicants who know they aren’t eligible for state benefits to wait to file later in April, and even offers on its website an “eligibility checker” that helps determine who should wait to apply.

The department is also adding more call-center staff and extending hours for the greater call-center volumes as claimants struggle to file claims.

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That’s already paid off for Dave O’Connor, who was furloughed from his job at Everett-based Aviation Technical Services on April 1, but was prevented from logging into the ESD system by a technical glitch. The problem was solved this week after a department staffer emailed him a software patch.

O’Connor said he had the resources to endure the delay, “but there are a lot of people out there who don’t.”

Indeed, although the new federal money will eventually bring extra generous unemployment benefits — applicants who earned less than $62,500 a year will actually see a weekly unemployment benefit greater than their old salary  — delays in getting that money are putting pressure on many unemployed workers.

That’s especially true for many workers in lower-wage jobs or who were working part-time, and may lack the savings to last until their claims are approved. And, of course, the wait will be even longer for workers like Jacobs, who are ineligible for state benefits but can’t begin to tap federal funds until April 18.

The lag is surely one of the reasons behind the heavy demand for local and state social programs as well as nongovernmental organizations and charities, many of which are looking for additional financial support.

At Nourish Pierce County, CEO Potter is putting out a call for more donations to prepare for what she fears will be a 100% increase in weekly customer visits in April.

“Pandemics,” she said, “aren’t cheap for food banks. Let’s just put it that way.”

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