Virus shutdowns cause big spike in state jobless claims

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Washington state saw an 843 percent week-over-week increase in claims for unemployment benefits last week as businesses started to temporarily close under state-mandated orders to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor and the state Employment Security Department showed that 133,464 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed with the state during the week of March 15-21, an increase of 119,310 new claims over the previous week.

The state agency has been averaging between 13,000 and 25,000 phone calls every day into its claim centers, spokesman Nick Demerice said. The first week of March, it was between 1,400 and 2,500.

He said that during business hours, the agency’s website has averaged 3,000 concurrent users every day since last Tuesday and that in the past two weeks alone the website had 50 percent of the total active users of all 2019.

Based on the number of claims that have come in already this week and the number of calls the agency is receiving, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the numbers will continue to climb in the state.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in volume and velocity in the history of our unemployment insurance program, going back to the 1930s,” she said in a conference call with reporters. “We understand this is an unprecedented time and a very difficult time for most of the people in our state.”

Nationally, nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week — up from 282,000 during the previous week — almost five times the previous record set in 1982.

The numbers were released as more states were issuing stay-at-home orders and businesses closed.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order Monday night and ordered all non-essential businesses to close. The order remains in place through at least April 6. It expands previous actions taken by Inslee last week that ordered the statewide closure of bars, dine-in restaurants, and entertainment and recreation facilities and banned large gatherings.

Accommodation and food services were among the industries with the largest jump in claims, according to the Employment Security Department, jumping to more than 41,000, up more than 1,000 percent from the previous week. Health care and social assistance saw nearly 19,000 new claims in that time frame, up more than 2,000 percent from the previous week, and retail trade saw 8,700 new claims, up more than 1,100 percent from the previous week.

In Washington state, there are more than 2,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 132 people have died. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

LeVine noted several actions the agency has already taken to help workers, including waiving the one-week waiting period that previously existed for applying for unemployment benefits. The work search requirement is now voluntary.

LeVine said that the agency was looking to hire at least 100 people to help deal with the growing volume of unemployment claims, and said that number could increase to between 500 and 1,000. She noted that the jobs can be done remotely.

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