1 in 5 Washington workers have filed unemployment claims

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- One in five workers in Washington have filed unemployment benefit claims since March, and nearly $1.5 billion in benefits have been paid out in that time frame, including federal money that has increased weekly payments in response to the coronavirus pandemic, state officials said Thursday.

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said that of the 787,533 people who have filed for benefits since March 7, more than half a million who have filed an initial claim since the pandemic began have been paid.

Of the more than 283,000 people who have not yet received benefits, about a third have an issue on their application that needs to be resolved before they can receive benefits, with the remainder either having filed their initial application but not a weekly claim, or those who were previously rejected and haven’t applied since a federal package made them eligible.

LeVine said the agency is working to contact those who have been approved but who haven’t yet filed a weekly claim, as well as those previously rejected who are now eligible under the federal program. She also said more people are being hired to help expedite claims held up due to questions about their application.

More than 1.4 million claims for unemployment benefits — with some of that number reflecting people who filed multiple claims seeking retroactive payments — were filed for the week of April 19-25. Last week alone, more than $988 million was paid out, a weekly amount that LeVine said was “by far the largest week of unemployment benefits delivered in our state’s history.”

“We had more initial claims in the past seven weeks than we’ve had in the past 3½ years combined,” she said. She noted, however, last week’s large amount of benefits paid out was in part due to the retroactive distribution of both regular benefits and the new federally expanded benefits.

Of the cumulative $1.5 billion paid out so far, LeVine said about a billion is in federal dollars from the economic rescue package that adds an additional $600 a week in jobless aid on top of what recipients receive from the state. That package also adds an additional 13 weeks of benefits beyond the 26 weeks offered in Washington state.

The surge in applications last week reflected newly eligible applicants who were able to start applying for benefits April 18. That’s when the state updated its system so that previously ineligible employees — like independent contractors and part-time employees who work fewer than 680 hours — could start applying for benefits under the expansion of unemployment benefit passed by Congress.

The updated system also added the expanded weekly payment and the additional weeks of benefits. The maximum weekly benefit in the state is $790 a week, and the additional $600 is paid retroactive back to March 29.

Over the past six weeks, more than 30 million people nationwide have filed for unemployment aid due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus.

LeVine said she does expect weekly claims and total claims to continue to rise as COVID-19 continues to affect the state’s economy.

At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee confirmed the state’s stay-at-home order that was enacted March 23 would remain in place beyond May 4 and said he would have more details Friday about a phased-in approach on reopening the economy. Since last Friday, he has announced the easing of some restrictions, including the resumption of existing construction projects, and allowing day use activities at state parks and some outdoor recreation like hunting, golfing and fishing. And on Wednesday, he announced that some non-urgent surgeries could also resume.

More than 14,300 people in Washington state have tested positive for the virus and at least 814 have died. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.