Instead of unemployment benefits, out-of-work Washingtonians say they are getting frustration and delay from the state’s web site for COVID-19 job-loss benefits.

Washington was one of the first states to roll out unemployment assistance backed with federal cash under several new assistance programs for people unemployed because of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The aid goes beyond unemployment benefits in several ways.

There is a 13-week extension for people who have exhausted their benefits or are about to. There is also an extra $600 a week for people already on unemployment — and those recipients don’t need to do anything to get that money. It will just show up in their check.

And for the first time, there are also benefits for people who normally would not qualify — because they are self-employed or work part time, and don’t meet the state requirement for benefits of having worked 680 hours at their job in the last year.

All three programs are federally funded under the CARES act passed by Congress last month.

But accessing the programs has been another story.

The state’s website went live with the new programs Saturday night at 8 p.m. The system was immediately swamped by applicants, said Nick Demerice, public affairs director for the state Department of Employment Security.

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“We got a massive volume, right off the bat. It was in tens of thousands, it already was dramatically higher than ever before and this is significantly more than that,” he said. “What we saw was a massive load, right after 8 p.m. We added more capacity, but those sites just got overwhelmed. Quite a few folks were able to get all the way through, but from a lot of folks we also are hearing frustration.”

The department is monitoring the problem and adding capacity, Demerice said. “We understand people’s anxiety around this, but this isn’t a limited pot of money they need to race to get.”

The best solution in the short term to the bandwidth shortage is to wait it out for a few days, when people normally applying for their weekly benefits aren’t also in the system, he suggested. Or try at odd hours. “The system is there, 24-7.”

Gabe, a painter in Mount Vernon who preferred not to give his last name, said it was impossible to connect with the department.

“This morning I tried no less than 50 calls,” he said. “When you call in it just says I’m sorry we are receiving an unprecedented number of calls. Please try later.”

“The system is just so overloaded.”

Cindy Spangler of Kirkland was working as a real estate agent for Redfin but said she was laid off April 12 because of COVID-19. She normally would not have qualified for benefits because after working for years as a contractor, she became a full-time employee only in January. So the new program for people who have fewer than 680 hours at their job in the last year could help — if only she could apply.

Cindy Spangler, pictured Sunday in Kirkland with her laptop, used repeatedly trying to access COVID-19  unemployment benefits through the state’s crashing website.  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Cindy Spangler, pictured Sunday in Kirkland with her laptop, used repeatedly trying to access COVID-19 unemployment benefits through the state’s crashing website. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

But trying at 8:01 p.m. Saturday night, when Washington’s website first went live, proved nothing but frustrating, Spangler said. Ditto when she tried again at midnight, and again early Sunday morning.

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“It’s still not working,” she said closer to noon. Spangler is worried the benefits will be exhausted before she can get the assistance she’s entitled to, though the state has said that should not happen.

The federal Small Business Administration quickly ran out of money to make small business loans, adding to anxiety for many that these new programs also will crater before people get help.

Spangler’s spouse also has seen his work dry up because of COVID, and while the two have some savings, she said, they can’t go without any income. “This is a major setback,” Spangler said. “And I know there are a lot of people in the same boat.”

She asked, “Can’t they come up with some kind of strategy? This is just very frustrating.”

Because of COVID-19, the system already was straining under traffic volumes of 3,000 or more concurrent users — way over the usual, Demerice said.

But that was nothing compared to the traffic now, which the state is still working to quantify.

It is a struggle to add enough service fast enough for such demand, Demerice said. “We are not Amazon. We have been calling it a tsunami of claims, and it is tough to scale for that. … We are sympathetic, people who are waiting on funds are in a very desperate situation and we want to get people their money fast.”