Like many of the thousands of Washington residents who have recently received pink slips, Darcy Wytko has gotten little reassurance from the state’s unemployment insurance system.
On Monday, the 38-year-old temporarily lost her job as a server at Mkt, a restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, and quickly filed an unemployment claim. But on Wednesday, when Wytko logged in to the state Employment Security Department’s website, she found her claim had been denied without explanation. She called the state helpline repeatedly, but failed to get through.
“And rent is due in less than two weeks,” Wytko said.
Wytko’s experience may be the new norm, at least for a while, as the state faces a rising wave of layoffs amid the coronavirus epidemic.
Nationally, unemployment claims jumped by a third last week over the prior week, according to the labor department. But the increase has been even sharper in Washington.
Statewide, 14,846 unemployment insurance claims were filed during the week that ended last Saturday. That’s more than double the number from a week earlier, according to department figures released Thursday.
Claims have surged even faster since Sunday, when Gov. Jay Inslee mandated closures of many public-facing venues, including gyms, entertainment venues, and many bars and restaurants.
“This week, every day, the new claims we are receiving are at the level of the peak weeks during the 2008/2009 recession,” said Employment Security Department commissioner Suzan LeVine.
The historical comparison is telling. In 2010, the state paid out $4.1 billion in unemployment insurance claims, or nearly four times the amount the state paid in 2019, according to state figures. And unlike during the Great Recession, when claims increased gradually, “this is all happening at once,” said Nick Demerice, a spokesperson for the Employment Security Department, adding that much of the funding for the payouts back then came from the federal government.
The state’s jobless rate will likely rise. It was 3.8% in February. At the height of the Great Recession, in 2010, Washington’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit 10%. On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reportedly warned congressional leaders that the national unemployment rate could hit 20% without strong federal action.
As in many other states, the surge in jobless claims in Washington has overwhelmed its unemployment insurance system.
On both Monday and Tuesday, the Employment Security Department’s website saw 280,000 visitors, or more than 18 times the normal volume for this time of year, while the agency’s telephone helpline had eight times the normal traffic, according to a department announcement.
“I couldn’t get through to any person,” said Wytko. “There was a recording … basically saying that due to the volume of calls, this call will be ending, and then ‘click.'”
Some of the problems reflect hurried state efforts to extend unemployment benefits to more workers. For example, employers may now place part-time workers on a temporary status, known as “standby,” instead of laying them off. That status, already available for full-time workers, means part-time workers can claim unemployment benefits without having to look for another job.
But as many newly jobless workers have discovered, because those changes weren’t fully loaded into the department’s computer system, many claims were erroneously denied, Demerice said.
Many of these problems will be fixed by adding more staff, Demerice said. State officials are scrambling to fill multiple positions processing jobless claims. “Due to the temporary closure of some businesses here in Washington state we are anticipating the need for additional staffing,” according to a job posting, which promises interviews next week.
But it may take longer for other people to find aid. For example, gig workers and others who are self-employed often can’t file for benefits under the current unemployment insurance program, Demerice said. Ride-share drivers have seen sharp income decreases since the coronavirus outbreak yet often have no other job, according to a survey by The Ride Guy, an industry consultant.
However, such workers could receive benefits if President Donald Trump declares the outbreak a natural disaster and Congress authorizes disaster unemployment assistance, Demerice said.
On Thursday, Washington state health officials confirmed an additional 189 coronavirus cases and eight deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The numbers bring the total number of confirmed cases in the state to 1,376, including 74 deaths. About half of the confirmed cases are in King County.
Most of the state’s deaths from COVID-19 have been in King County, where 60 people have died. Of those, 35 were associated with Life Care Center of Kirkland.
Also Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced statewide restrictions on “nonurgent medical and dental procedures” so health care workers can save protective equipment needed to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. The order, according to Inslee’s office, “applies to any nonurgent procedure that requires medical professionals to wear personal protective equipment” in all hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, and dental, orthodontic and endodontic offices.
The New York Times contributed to this report.