1 in 5 Washington Workers Have Filed Unemployment Claims as Federal Coronavirus Relief Kicks In


More than 1 in 5 workers in Washington have now sought unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic as the state continues to slide into one of the deepest economic downturns on record.

On Thursday, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported 137,605 initial claims for unemployment insurance for the week ending April 25. The latest batch of claims brings the total number of workers who have filed for unemployment insurance since March 7 to 787,533, or more than two-and-a-half times the peak during the Great Recession.

It also highlights the enormous sums of state and federal money that are flowing to workers -- nearly $1 billion last week alone --" by far, the largest week of unemployment benefits delivered in our state's history," said department commissioner Suzi LeVine in a statement Thursday morning.

But it also underscored the difficulties that tens of thousands of workers are still having in accessing some of those funds. Of those who've filed for unemployment insurance since March 7, almost 36% have not yet been paid benefits.

"It wouldn't surprise me if I don't get paid any benefits until the end of the year," said Nigel Lott, 71, a part-time Uber driver who has been trying to file an unemployment claim since March 13 and has so far received nothing.

During a news conference Tuesday, LeVine said the department is "keenly aware of" those problems and is working hard to resolve them.

The state claims surged nearly 67% over the week before -- one of the sharpest increases of any state -- even as unemployment claims for the nation as a whole fell by 18.5% to 3.5 million, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.

Washington's spike in claims was likely driven in part by the availability of new federal jobless benefits, which Washington was among the first states to make available to workers, starting April 18. Most of the nearly $1.5 billion paid to workers since March 7 has come from recently enacted federal pandemic assistance legislation.

For weeks, the ESD has been grappling with problems that have delayed payments for existing jobless claims even as it braced for what LeVine has called a "tsunami" of new claims as the state began processing applications for the new federal benefits.

Part of the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus package enacted in March, the federal benefits provide unemployment assistance for several categories of workers, such as independent contractors, that might otherwise be ineligible under state unemployment insurance programs.

The federal benefits, which are administered through state unemployment insurance systems, also include an extra $600 weekly payment for all unemployed workers along with 13 additional weeks of benefits, which lifts Washington's total to 39 weeks.

Last week's surge was partly a reflection of pent-up demand: the department had expected the new federal benefits to not only to draw more workers, but also a greater number of claims from each worker. That's because each worker must often file multiple claims for state benefits as well as for federal benefits, and may also be filing claims for retroactive benefits.

As a result, last week, the state received not only the 137,605 initial claims under its regular unemployment insurance program, but another 1.32 million separate claims, many of them filed under the new federal programs.

Anticipating that wave of new claims, the department encouraged workers eligible for federal benefits to wait to file until April 18, when state had updated its claim system to process the federal benefits.

Even so, the new claims have added to challenges for the department, whose system had experienced delays processing claims under some other programs, such as the state's new Paid Family and Medical Leave law, even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the pandemic, some workers have said they are unable to file claims because the department's website kept crashing or are unable to get through to the department's call center to resolve a problem."The whole process has been a nightmare," said Seattle resident Chelsea Vetter, 33, a former nursery worker who filed a claim in late March and still hasn't received any money despite being notified that her claim has been paid. "It's just been exhausting with all the anxiety."

"Half the time the website doesn't even load," said Vetter.

Department officials have added more staff to call centers and have also tried to address technical issues, such as data bottlenecks between the department's claims portal and the state facility that authenticates users.

But LeVine said delays are often caused because applicants haven't followed the required procedures.

Some applicants who have had their initial claims approved then fail to file again each subsequent week, which is necessary to continue to get benefits. Other applications are missing key data or have discrepancies that prevent the application from being processed automatically. Instead, these claims must go through an in-person "fact-finding" process "to verify and correct and/or update some of these claims so they can be paid," LeVine said.

Although the department starts with the assumption that "that everyone is eligible," LeVine said, "we also have an obligation to protect taxpayers from fraud. And there are many situations when there are people who are trying to abuse the system and when they are not filing claims that are valid and it's really important for us to still go through this process to verify the information."

CORRECTION: An early version of this story gave incorrect figures for how much national unemployment claims fell.