Washington’s new unemployment-benefits website launched Tuesday morning but was immediately beset with technical difficulties and overwhelmed phone lines.

Share story

A new online system for Washingtonians to file for unemployment benefits was not working soon after it launched Tuesday morning and remained nonfunctional through most of the day.

The system’s website led users to an error page when they tried to put in information, and two toll-free phone numbers were overwhelmed by callers, leading to busy signals and dropped calls.

“Technical difficulties and high call volumes are affecting our ability to take initial unemployment-benefit applications, weekly claims and questions right now,” the state Employment Security Department wrote in an alert on its website Tuesday morning. “Multiple teams are working to fix this as quickly as possible.”

Janelle Guthrie, a department spokeswoman, said the agency would update the alert every hour and that new claimants applying for benefits can do so any time this week with no effect on their benefits.

But weekly benefit payments will be delayed because of the new system, the department wrote in its alert.

Guthrie said much higher-than-expected traffic on the site’s sign-on portal prevented people from accessing the site.

While the website struggled most of the day, the department said it had fixed the issues with the phone lines.

“Agents have successfully been taking applications and claims over the phone since noon today, and we’ve processed claims for more than 17,000 people,” Guthrie said at around 5 p.m. “The claims centers answer incoming calls from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then serve customers waiting on hold until 5 p.m.”

At 6 p.m., Guthrie said they were confident that issues with the website had been resolved.

The new unemployment system is projected to cost about $28.1 million to build and implement, Guthrie said. That’s about $11.1 million under budget, she said.

Michael Guss, of Cashmere, Chelan County, is unemployed after recently working for an economic-development agency. He said the timing of the website change could be especially problematic.

“It’s the beginning of the month; what are people going to do to pay their rent if they’re on unemployment?” Guss said. “People are looking at being evicted in the middle of winter because of incompetence in Olympia.”

The new website is meant to increase security for the online system and allow both claimants and employers more self-service options.

It is supposed to allow users to apply for benefits and submit weekly claims online, as well as give claimants the option of getting benefits via a debit card, rather than paper checks.

“We’re excited to offer this new technology to serve our customers,” Commissioner Dale Peinecke, of the Employment Security Department, said in a statement last week. “But we also know change brings challenges — and we’re prepared to help.”