Huge surge in Washington unemployment claims following expanded benefits

Apr 30, 2020, 5:37 PM | Updated: May 1, 2020, 3:54 pm
Unemployment, coronavirus...
A pedestrian walks past a closed cafe with its windows covered in American flags at the Pike Place Market. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Employment Security Department knew it was coming – a tsunami of unemployment claims coinciding with the availability of expanded and extended unemployment benefits provided under the federal CARES Act.

That tsunami hit with a more than 450% increase in total claims filed last week, or just under 1.5 million.

“In a week in which issued just shy of a billion dollars to thousands of Washingtonians, this is by far the largest week of unemployment benefits delivered in our state’s history,” said ESD Commissioner Suzy LeVine.

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The number of claims filed do not represent individual people, LeVine said, as many people are filing multiple claims, mostly due to the expanded federal benefits.

There are a variety of additional benefits under the CARES Act, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which expands benefits to those who would not normally qualify for unemployment, such as independent contractors and freelancers, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which extends unemployment insurance for an extra 13 weeks to those who have exhausted their benefits.

The true number of total claims filed last week is 787,533.

LeVine said since the start of the pandemic, 504,284 people who have filed an initial claim have been paid. Tens of thousands of others are still waiting.

The volume of web traffic to file online, phone filings, and calls to customer service have been bogging down the system for weeks. However, LeVine said the department’s effort to encourage filers who could afford to wait a couple of days ultimately paid off, allowing hundreds of thousands to get through the system this past week.

Still, many are stuck on the pending phase, largely because there are discrepancies of some sort that need to be resolved by an adjudicator – a specially trained staffer who reviews the issue personally with the claimant and employer, if need be, to resolve any discrepancies.

“Unfortunately, resolving these issues takes both people and time,” LeVine said. “Under normal circumstances, cases are adjudicated within 21 days. That means additional information is requested and reviewed by a trained adjudicator and a decision is made in about three weeks. However, right now is anything but normal. We’ve had more claims in the past 7 weeks than we had in the prior 3.5 years combined.”

LeVine said getting benefits out to all who qualify is the top priority, and the department is working on four things to reach that goal.

“It is our agency’s number one priority to get benefits to those people who are eligible for some form of unemployment assistance and who are still waiting,” she said.

These are the four things the ESD is doing right now to address the issue:

  1. Getting people who are eligible to be paid to take action. Tens of thousands of people have not filed their weekly claim or do not know they should apply for expanded unemployment benefits under the federal CARES Act. Targeted emails will remind them to take these important steps.
  2. Reaching out to those in adjudication for various reasons and updating them on the work being done to resolve their situation.
  3. Bulk-clearing certain issues whenever possible. For example, people who noted that they are a student as well as an employee typically must show that they have enough hours in their week outside of school available to work. With most schools cancelled, this is an issue the agency has been able to bulk-clear for many applicants, speeding up the process for those folks to be paid.
  4. Bringing on more customer service staff to both help people across the state process their claims and get through on the phones, and to free up adjudicators to do the specialized work of resolving claims issues. The ESD has more than tripled the claims staff and is continuing to hire. Find current postings here.

LeVine said they know people desperately need this money, apologized for the delay, and vowed to continue working hard to clear the backlog.

You can find information more on the adjudication issue in a video message from LeVine here. She also encouraged those being denied benefits or preparing to file for the first time to read the ESD checklist and FAQs.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here.

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Huge surge in Washington unemployment claims following expanded benefits