$2.1 billion in unemployment benefits paid in Washington

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — More than $2.1 billion has been paid out to people seeking unemployment benefits in Washington state during the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 1.4 million claims filed since early March.

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said Thursday that of the 810,538 people who have filed for benefits since March 7, more than 545,000 who have filed an initial claim have been paid.

Of the approximately 265,000 who have not yet received benefits, most — about 187,000 — are those who have filed an initial application but not a weekly claim, or those who were previously rejected and haven’t applied since a federal package made them eligible. An additional 57,000 have one or more issues with their application that the agency is is looking into, and about 21,000 are not eligible.

LeVine said the agency is contacting those who just simply need to file a weekly claims, but she said those whose cases are officially in adjudication may taken longer “especially while we detect and protect against increasing fraud.”

“We hope to at least get really substantial momentum through our backlog within just the next two weeks,” she said. “And our goal is to get to 100 percent by mid-June, but hopefully a lot more before then.”

LeVine stressed that there is no concern about unemployment benefits running out. Those benefits currently include additional money from a federal 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.

Because of the federal bonus, in some cases, people are making more money on unemployment than their did in their jobs. LeVine said those applying for benefits must be truthful about whether they been offered work and turned it down. In some cases — like if they are caring for a sick family member, or if their children are home because of school closures — benefits will still be paid.

“If you intentionally improperly answer those questions or lie, that is considered fraud,” she said.

More than 1 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 26-May 2, and more than $639 million was paid out. While the number of initial claims was down from the previous week, LeVine said she does expect the number of overall cumulative claims to grow until larger numbers of people start to return to work as businesses start to reopen under Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan announced last Friday.

The state’s stay-at-home order — in place since March 23 — has been extended by Inslee through at least May 31, though restrictions have been eased in some areas and will continue to lifted in phases over the next few months.

Day use activities at most state parks and some outdoor recreation like hunting, golfing and fishing resumed Tuesday. Previously Inslee announced the resumption of existing construction projects, and retail curbside pickup, automobile sales and car washes can start by mid-May. The next phase, expected to start June 1, would allow camping, new construction, and in-store retail purchases, with restrictions. Barber shops and salons could also reopen at that time, and restaurants could reopen at half capacity and table sizes limited to five.

There will be a minimum of three weeks between each phase, though Inslee said some counties with lower numbers of cases and deaths may be able to move to the second phase of the reopening schedule if approved by the Department of Health.

Nationwide, roughly 33.5 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces.

Nearly 16,000 people in Washington state have tested positive for the virus and at least 870 have died. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.