For the second week running, Washington state broke its own record for unemployment claims as the economy continued to slow under the grinding weight of the coronavirus pandemic and workers of all sorts found themselves jobless.
State residents filed 181,975 claims for unemployment insurance during the seven days ending March 28, a 41% increase over the previous week’s already record-breaking number. The week’s tally amounts to seven times as many claims as were filed at the peak of Great Recession, according to the state Employment Security Department (ESD).
Washington state’s unprecedented job losses were among more than 6.6 million new jobless claims filed last week across the country, roughly double the prior week’s number, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The mounting claims will add urgency to efforts to upgrade the state’s unemployment insurance systems to handle more jobless filings as well as an influx of federal stimulus money.
“Things are not slowing down,” said ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine during a Thursday call with reporters. While the new numbers showed that “businesses and individuals are listening to the ‘stay home and stay healthy’ orders,” LeVine added, “it also speaks to the hurt and the pain that we’re feeling in our economy and the challenges that we see as a state.”
Among those feeling that pain is Andrew Malm, a 52-year-old Seattle resident whose job as a greeter at T-Mobile Park disappeared with the Mariners season. “I went through the recession in the 1980s, the dot-com bust and of course 2008,” said Malm, who hasn’t had any income since early March. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Thursday’s numbers portrayed a state job market suffering across all industries and locations. While King County continued to lead the state for total new claims, with 44,613, up 20% from a week earlier, losses were sharper elsewhere as the wave of economic disruption moved outward.
In Snohomish County, new claims jumped 55%, to 21,176. Spokane County saw a 38% increase, to 12,102 claims. The latter likely included some of the 97 workers temporarily laid off March 25 by George Gee Buick-GMC, Kia, Porsche, and Mercedes of Spokane.
Thursday’s numbers also showed how the impact of government efforts to control the pandemic by shutting down “nonessential” companies is moving into new industries.
The hotel and food-service sector, which was hit hard in the early weeks of the pandemic, saw fewer losses last week, with 23,360 new claims, down 43% over the prior week. By contrast, the construction sector became the new biggest loser, with 28,021 claims, for a fivefold increase over the prior week, as “we had the addition of a lot of contractors and people in the construction industry who were deemed nonessential,” said LeVine.
Among those companies was Bethlehem Construction, of Cashmere, in Chelan County, which temporarily laid of 67 workers on March 25.
LeVine used Thursday’s media call both to lay out the scale of Washington’s growing jobless crisis but also to set expectations about state aid for the wave of jobless residents.
Billions of dollars from a newly enacted federal stimulus legislation will allow Washington and other states to offer greater jobless benefits to a much larger number of applicants, including many not normally eligible for the state’s unemployment insurance program. These include self-employed workers, independent contractors and some gig workers, as well as people who haven’t worked 680 hours in the previous year.
But because of the massive volume of applicants — more than a third of a million state residents since the pandemic began — and problems with the state’s claims system, many applicants have encountered delays, been denied or run into other problems.
Brian Medford, who filed a claim after losing his shifts at a food-service organization in mid-March, said it took him more than 300 tries to get through on the Employment Security Department’s helpline — only to be informed by a recording that his claim would require six to eight weeks to process.
Although Medford, 45, said he has the resources to handle that wait, many of his former colleagues at work do not.
“These are people who were already barely making it on low wages and part-time work,” he said. “This is a hardship for a lot of people I really care about.”
LeVine outlined state efforts to reduce those delays, including additional helpline staff, but also technology to let applicants get faster answers online without having to call. She also emphasized that applicants experiencing the longest waits were often those whose claims required extra verification or where a former employer was no longer in business. “People who have a very straightforward application are able to receive money in their pockets within seven to 10 days for their claims,” she said, adding that even those applicants who have trouble filing claims will ultimately receive all the benefits they’re entitled to.
But LeVine, the former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein under the Obama administration, didn’t downplay problems in the department’s system that still need fixing.
She was also at pains to indicate that the state was likely nowhere near its peak in cumulative jobless claims. Noting that Thursday’s numbers were for last week, she said that department was already seeing yet another round of claims this week as “additional individual and additional sectors have essentially started to lay off.”
“I’m not going to make any predictions with regards to where this may top out,” LeVine added.