Last week Suzi LeVine, head of Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD), warned of a “tsunami” of new jobless claims in coming weeks as the coronavirus pandemic continued to march through the state economy.

This week, that forecast was largely born out.

State officials Thursday reported receiving 143,241 initial claims for unemployment insurance for the week ending April 11.

That brings the total number of initial and recurring unemployment claims to 585,983, which is nearly twice the peak recorded during the Great Recession. And it suggests the state’s unemployment rate might be as high as 15%.

The new weekly filings represented a nearly 16% decline from the prior week — the second consecutive weekly dip in jobless claims. But that was still about 23 times the number filed that same week a year ago.

Gov. Jay Inslee, in a news conference discussing the economic impacts of the outbreak, said the $125 million the state paid in jobless benefits last week alone was “the most that has been paid in any week since the program began in the Great Depression in the 1930s.”

All told, the state has “put a quarter of a billion dollars into the pockets of Washingtonians since March 16,” Inslee said.

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That record-breaking pattern was echoed across the nation, which saw 5.2 million new claims for the week ending April 11, according to Labor Department figures released Thursday. That was down from the 6.6 million claims reported for the prior week, but it brought total jobless claims over the last month to more than 22 million, representing levels not seen since the Great Depression.

The pandemic continues to claim victims in Washington: state health officials reported Thursday an additional 369 COVID-19 infections and 16 deaths, pushing the total to 11,152 infections and 583 deaths.

The bulk of the cases remains in King County, which is reporting 4,796 cases and 320 deaths. New deaths were also reported in Benton, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

About 91% of patient samples have returned negative, according to the state.

To help Washingtonians cope with the economic shutdown prompted by the pandemic, Inslee also on Thursday extended and expanded his moratorium on evictions and imposed a new freeze on increases of residential rents. The temporary statewide ban on evictions — which Inslee first announced last month — will be extended another seven weeks, with new measures that include a ban on residential rent increases during the public-health emergency. Commercial rent increases will also be prohibited, Inslee said, if the commercial tenant has been impacted by the coronavirus.

Employment Security Commissioner LeVine again cautioned state residents not to expect a big drop-off in new claims anytime soon. Because the state will be expanding benefits to include many workers who are typically ineligible for unemployment insurance, “we expect to see an even larger surge of claims in the coming weeks,” LeVine said in a statement.

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That was echoed by Gary Kamimura, the policy director of the department’s Workforce program. “There are a lot of individuals in that category who are going to be suffering,” said Kamimura, during a Thursday meeting of the state Interagency Committee on Homelessness. When the state begins taking applications under the federal program expanding benefit eligibility during the coronavirus pandemic, “we are going to be crushed.”

Last week’s claims put the state into economic territory it hasn’t seen in more than 30 years, according to Seattle economist Dick Conway.

Earlier this week, Washington state reported that the state unemployment rate for March, using data from midmonth, was 5.1%, up from 3.8% in February. But Conway agrees with the state economists who say the new figure misses most of the coronavirus-related job losses.

Conway thinks the state’s real unemployment rate in late March was “somewhere around 11.5%,” or about one in nine workers, based on the huge number of new unemployment insurance claims in late March. That would be the highest monthly unemployment rate since fall of 1982, when it hit 12.2%, according to historical data from the Federal Reserve.

Some experts think the growing new wave of joblessness could even challenge the record set during the 1969-72 “Boeing Bust,” when Boeing cut 64,000 jobs and unemployment in the Seattle-area reached 13.8 percent, according to History Link.

Indeed, when last week’s initial and recurring claims are compared against the 3.9 million people estimated to be in the state workforce, the unemployment rate looks to be around 15%.

The new state jobless numbers also showed how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to move through different sectors and locations. While some of the sectors that were hit early in the pandemic saw fewer jobs losses–retail was down 22% in the latest week, to 15,911 new claims, and accommodation was down 38%, to 11,233 claims–manufacturing more than tripled, to 33,337 claims.

King County, though it still leads the state in total numbers of new weekly claims, at 39,796, actually saw a 16% decline. Snohomish County saw a 31% increase to 27,780, which could in part reflect the temporary closure of Boeing’s Everett plant and subsequent shutdowns by nearby aerospace suppliers.

There was some good news, too.

The ESD will have more than 1,000 employees processing the backlog of jobless claims, LeVine said at Thursday’s press conference. She added that she had authorized as much overtime as staff want for the work, “in order to help get that money in people’s pockets, and get it in their pockets faster.”

As part of the department’s benefits expansion, workers who would be eligible for benefits under a new federal “pandemic” program will be able to receive some unemployment funds immediately while their claims are being processed by the state.

Starting Saturday, workers previously denied state benefits — for example, because they are independent contractors, some gig workers, and people with less than 680 hours of work from the previous year — can log into the accounts they’ve set up with the Employment Security Department and apply for federal pandemic unemployment-assistance benefits.

After answering some questions and, if necessary uploading supporting documents, applicants will be immediately qualified for a benefit payment of at least $835, Levine said. That includes the pandemic program’s minimum payment, which LeVine said will be $235, on top of the weekly pandemic benefit of $600 that is being paid to all unemployment-insurance beneficiaries.

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Once the state verifies their income, based on the previous five quarters, they’ll receive retroactive payments for the difference and the full amount going forward.

The Employment Security Department has also formally requested that Uber, Lyft and other firms that rely on gig workers to provide data on wages and hours worked to more quickly provide workers with unemployment assistance. But it’s not clear whether companies will comply with the request for data.

The expanded benefits will be welcome news for people like 53-year-old Michael Lowe, a Seattle resident who has driven for Uber, Lyft and other rideshare companies.

Lyft driver Michael Lowe will benefit from expanded unemployment insurance.  (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Lyft driver Michael Lowe will benefit from expanded unemployment insurance. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Lowe saw his weekly income fall from around $700 to less than $100 in early March after Amazon and other tech firms sent their workers home in response to the pandemic. But because he had trouble getting documentation from rideshare companies, Lowe’s application for state unemployment insurance was repeatedly denied, and he began working extra hours to make ends meet.

Even though Lowe only expects around $800 a week under the expanded benefits, it should be enough to help cover insurance, car payments “and some of my back rent,” Lowe said. “It will relieve a considerable burden.”

Seattle Times reporters  Sydney Brownstone and Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this story.