Unemployment relief delayed weeks for some, state system overwhelmed

SEATTLE -- The rise in state unemployment claims broke records for the second week in a row amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Employment Security Department.

Between March 22 and March 28, more than 180,000 Washingtonians applied for new unemployment benefits, a 3,513 percent increase from the same week in 2019 and a 41 percent increase over the previous week. The ESD says it's seven times the peak week during the 2008-2009 recession.

The record-breaking numbers fail to tell the full story, though. Thousands of Washingtonians are seeking unemployment benefits but can't get through to anyone over the phone to process their claim, meaning the actual new unemployment numbers are even higher. Some are experiencing weeks-long delays while the bills are piling up.

"We have been hit by an avalanche of unprecedented claims, beyond any imagination in any historical period, and so we're hiring over 200 people to try to process those claims as fast as humanly possible," Gov. Jay Inslee said when asked to respond to the backlog.

ESD Public Affairs director Nick Demerice said the 200 people are primarily for the call center, and he expects 500 to 1,000 people will need to be hired in the coming weeks and months to keep up with demand. Demerice said the call center is receiving more than 20,000 phone calls per day, a 10-fold increase from normal volumes.

In the meantime, the governor said he hopes an eviction moratorium and measures to reduce foreclosures will help slow the bleeding for thousands of families who have lost their jobs over the virus but have yet to receive unemployment benefits.

"Although it is hard from a cash flow standpoint, regardless of when you get through to finally get that claim set up, all of those payments will be retroactive back to your eligibility date," Demerice said. "That includes the new federal dollars that will be coming. Even though it'll take us to the 18th to be able to deploy that technology, when an individual is able to apply after that and start receiving benefits, they'll receive retro payments all the way back to their eligibility date."

ESD is also addressing some technology obstacles that are currently forcing applicants to have to request claims over the phone, so more people can apply online.

Even with thousands of applicants struggling to get a call back, Demerice said the state has already paid out more than $67 million in unemployment benefits in the past two weeks to those whose claims have been processed.

"There are still thousands of people who are getting through every single day and are speaking to a representative and getting their issues resolved," Demerice said. "Despite the frustration, we encourage folks to just keep trying, just keep at it, be patient. You will get your money retroactively back to your eligibility date and so you're not losing money by this delay, but we understand that is an impact to folks."

More information on expanded unemployment benefits and updates on the COVID-19 response can be found here.