The Washington state Employment Security Department can handle 600 callers at any given time. But between March 8 and April 11 -- when the state's economy was bulldozed by the novel coronavirus outbreak -- the office received new unemployment claims requests from nearly 640,000 people.
The ESD has acted quickly to add capacity, said Nick Demerice, spokesman for the state office. The number of claim agents has grown from less than 300 to 420, and the department projects it will employ 860 agents by the end of this week. Additionally, the ESD is in the process of launching a new toll-free line specifically to answer questions from people impacted by the novel coronavirus outbreak.
But there was just no way to fully prepare for this kind of spike in unemployment. The worst week so far for job losses saw nearly seven times as many new unemployment claims than the worst week of the Great Recession.
"While we are bringing on more capacity, more than doubling our number of agents, there are unfortunately too many calls and emails to get through every day," Demerice said.
If more than 600 people are calling in at any given time, anyone over that threshold is dropped from the hold queue and the callback list. Instead, they hear an automated message instructing them to call back later.
"Once all the lines and all the queue spots fill up, the system doesn't allow more people to hold," Demerice said. "It's a capacity issue, and you don't want people holding who you can't get to."
Submitting a question online also isn't a surefire way to connect. Those who fill out the query form at the state website are met with the response: "We are unable to respond to all questions submitted online in a timely manner, and we apologize."
Bill Messenger, workforce development director for the Washington State Labor Council, interacts with the department frequently on behalf of laid-off workers. From his perspective, the ESD is starting to get a handle on the sheer number of claims it needs to process. But waves of large-scale job losses -- like at Boeing, where mass layoffs were announced earlier this month -- amount to "a crisis on top of a crisis."
"I think that they (ESD) are doing really good work for the way they got hit," Messenger said. "But I think people want a light switch flipped. I don't know if we're ever going to go back to business as normal."
Getting questions answered
According to Demerice, thousands of callers get through to the ESD daily. Calling the department directly is one way to get in touch, although it could require repeated attempts.
He also strongly encourages people to read through the department's online information carefully to see if their questions have already been answered.
"A recent analysis showed that more than 65 percent of calls were questions and not claim calls. Many of which were answered on our website and FAQs," he said. "That is why we are encouraging folks to read through those before calling in."
For workers who were part of a union, Messenger encourages laid-off people to consolidate their questions and use a designated point person to communicate with the ESD. As a worker advocate, that's part of his job -- the biggest part of his job, at the moment.
"Instead of having each individual swamp ESD with questions, there are a few of us trying to act as go-betweens in the system," Messenger said. "If you can kind of consolidate and talk to somebody at your local level that can go directly to ESD as a local resource, I think that's the best way to do it."
He also encouraged people laid off to reach out to their local WorkSource Washington office, a partnership between state, local and nonprofit organizations designed to connect job seekers with employers.
While the office isn't answering unemployment benefit questions via telephone right now, staff can help people find work in the interim.
The Clark County WorkSource location in east Vancouver is closed for in-person appointments due to the coronavirus outbreak but can be reached by phone at 360-735-5000.
"Getting people income, that's the first and foremost thing," Messenger said.