Washington is rapidly approaching a handful of grim economic milestones as it moves through the coronavirus crisis.
By Saturday, the state could be laboring under almost a million claims for unemployment insurance. It could have an effective unemployment rate well above 15%. And it could surpass $1.5 billion in payments to unemployed workers even as many of their jobless peers continue to struggle to file claims.
That stark picture emerged Thursday as the Employment Security Department (ESD) released the latest round of unemployment data. For the week ending April 18, the state received 82,435 initial claims for unemployment insurance — part of the 4.4 million initial claims for unemployment insurance reported nationally by the Labor Department.
But Thursday’s figures, which pushed Washington’s total number of initial and recurring claims to 605,514, or roughly twice the peak during the Great Recession, didn’t include a surge of applicants that swamped the state’s claims system last weekend as previously ineligible workers tried to apply for new federal benefits.
With more claims still coming in this week, state officials expect total claims could rise to between 900,000 and 1 million for the week ending Saturday, said ESD commissioner Suzi LeVine at a Thursday news conference.
“This is a staggering number for our system,” she added.
Thursday’s claims report, which has become a weekly data point for the pandemic, reflected both the depth of the economic damage caused by the coronavirus, but also the steps state and federal agencies are taking to try to shield workers from that damage.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Health released numbers Thursday showing 12,753 cases of coronavirus statewide — an increase of 259 — and that number includes 711 deaths.
The more than 605,514 initial and recurring unemployment claims now in the state system implies an unemployment rate of more than 15% —and that will almost certainly rise if the state’s forecasts of 1 million total claims is borne out next week. That could rival the unemployment rate of any modern recession — even the infamous Boeing Bust of 1969-71.
At the same time, the massive amounts of aid being paid to those workers — more than $1.4 billion since the pandemic crisis began, with nearly $900 million of that just of it since last Saturday — represent a nearly unprecedented degree of government intervention.
Those numbers “illustrate the magnitude of demand and most importantly, the magnitude of relief that we have delivered and that we will continue to deliver” to state workers, LeVine said.
Much of that relief comes from last month’s $2.2 trillion federal pandemic response. The legislation added a $600 weekly payment to existing state benefits, which in Washington raised the minimum weekly benefit to $788. It also paid for another 13 weeks of benefits, bringing Washington’s total to 39.
As important, it also provided a weekly benefit to workers, such as independent contractors, or those who worked fewer than the state minimum of 680 hours, who are often not covered under state unemployment-insurance programs.
But Thursday’s report also confirmed the state’s ongoing difficulties in getting all that aid to all those workers. Many workers attempting to access the new federal benefits, which could be applied for starting at 8 p.m. Saturday, were unable to file claims or create accounts — problems that have dogged would-be applicants since the crisis began.
This weekend, the frustrations were due in large part to the sheer volume of new claims: during the 36-hour period following the opening of federal benefits, the state saw “substantially more” claims than it had received during the week ending March 29, when the state received an unprecedented 182,000 initial jobless claims, LeVine said.
On Thursday, LeVine urged would-be applicants to ease the load on the system by not filing all at once. She also repeated a request that new users to familiarize themselves with the application process before filing.
Steven Ross, the department’s director of labor market information, said many of the nearly one in four claims that were not paid last week were filed by workers who had been deemed eligible for benefits. They had simply failed to refile a new weekly claim, as required under state law, or needed to file a claim for the new federal benefits.
But LeVine acknowledged that some of the problems also stemmed from preexisting issues with the claims process. Although the department’s claims system was recently updated, there are still bottlenecks between it and other systems that support the claims process, notably the user authentication system, Secure Access Washington, or SAW, that all state agencies use, LeVine said.
“The authentication system has limited capacity,” LeVine explained during an interview Monday. “So what we have been working with them on is how they can expand their capacity and meet the demand, the exceptional and extraordinary demand that this has placed on the system.”
Performance has also been slowed by smaller problems, such as one that hobbled the claims process if applicants with existing SAW accounts forgot their passwords, LeVine said Monday.
Under normal circumstances, password-forgetful applicants would simply contact the Employment Security Department’s call center to have their password reset. But that solution became nearly impossible when the soaring number of applicants led to a 1,000% increase in call center call volumes. “Under load, small issues become big,” LeVine said.
In the weeks leading up to the start of federal aid, ESD staff worked around the clock to address these and other issues, LeVine said.
LeVine said that although she and her team knew some problems remained, they decide to launch the federal benefits program anyway in order to avoid further delays in getting benefits flowing.
“We knew we were making trade-offs to get money into people’s pockets quickly,” said LeVine, adding that her team is still working to address remaining issues. “There may be some who asked whether we should have waited, but I would argue that those who received some of the nearly 900 million [dollars] into their pockets would agree with that trade-off.”