Surge In Unemployment Continues As Clunky State Systems Await Upgrades

Shavonne Maes paints a mural onto the boarded up facade of Some Random Bar on March 26, 2020, in Seattle.
Shavonne Maes paints a mural onto the boarded up facade of Some Random Bar on March 26, 2020, in Seattle. CREDIT: Megan Farmer/KUOW

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QUICK LINKS FOR UNEMPLOYMENT:

Washington Employment Security Department

Oregon Employment Department

Idaho Department of Labor

Fresh numbers of initial claims for jobless benefits showed some moderation in the past week in the staggering wave of layoffs across the Pacific Northwest caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But the level of unemployment claims continues to hover at record levels, as reported Thursday by the state labor and employment departments of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

The sobering numbers were accompanied by some slivers of hope for the newly jobless, many of whom have struggled to draw unemployment because claims processing systems are overloaded and telephone hotlines jammed.

“While we have paid out so much into people’s pockets and into the economy, people are still in deep need,” Washington State Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said Thursday as she announced an imminent expansion in eligibility and benefits. “We know there are hundreds of thousands, if not more, who will now be eligible for unemployment assistance. We are looking forward to this expansion.”

Washington’s Employment Security Department plans to shut down its computer system and telephone hotlines on Saturday to update eligibility criteria and temporarily add an extra $600 per week to nearly all checks. These are key elements of the federally funded expansion of the unemployment safety net included in the massive $2 trillion coronavirus pandemic relief package approved by Congress late last month.

Previously denied part-timers, gig economy workers, freelancers and independent contractors whose work has dried up can soon file for jobless benefits. The door opens on different dates in different states, depending on how difficult it is to update clunky state government claims systems.

The fix can’t come soon enough for former restaurant server Katrina Thiessen of Thurston County, Washington. Thiessen was laid off in mid-March when the seafood chain where she worked part time had to close. Thiessen qualifies for benefits under the expanded eligibility criteria that Congress funded last month, but she cannot collect anything until Washington state updates its computer software.

“It is absolutely ridiculous to keep individuals and families waiting six weeks before they get their unemployment claims accepted and funds distributed,” Thiessen said in an email. “This is wrong.”

Oregon’s Employment Department has not offered a firm date when it will complete the update to its claims system to account for expanded eligibility under the federal pandemic relief package, formally known as the CARES Act.

The agency did crow about successfully adding the $600 extra weekly benefit to unemployment checks that went out this week. Virtually everyone who is on unemployment gets the extra payout through July.

Idaho won’t have its system updated to pay benefits to people who fall under the expanded eligibility criteria until May.

Thursday’s release of initial jobless claims capped a month of surging unemployment that is without precedent in its velocity. The initial claims reported by Idaho, Oregon and Washington state for the week that ended April 11 were down a bit from a late March peak — but still far higher than the worst week of the Great Recession. This week’s initial claims, when added to the three prior weeks, add up to nearly one million jobs abruptly vaporized by the coronavirus shutdown across the three Northwest states.

Laid-off restaurant worker Katrina Thiessen is frustrated by the weeks-long delay in having her unemployment claim approved.

Laid-off restaurant worker Katrina Thiessen is frustrated by the weeks-long delay in having her unemployment claim approved. CREDIT: Tom Banse/N3

“My concern is that we are seeing i