Associated Press and Herald staff
OLYMPIA — The number of people seeking unemployment benefits in Washington set a new record last week, with tens of thousands more people in the state filing new claims as non-essential businesses remain closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Numbers released Thursday by the state Employment Security Department showed that 181,975 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed with the state during the week of for the week of March 22-28, a 41 percent increase over the previous week’s earlier record of 128,962 new claims.
Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine noted that last week’s number of claims is a 3,513% increase over the same week in 2019, calling it a “mind-boggling number.”
Snohomish County experienced the highest percentage increase in total initial claims of any county. There were 21,176 new claims filed, up from 13,692 the previous week. That is a 55% jump, according to the state agency.
Nationally, nearly 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s double a record high set a week earlier and signals layoffs are accelerating, as businesses shutter amid “stay home” orders in most states.
Including the ongoing weekly claims previously filed, the Employment Security Department saw roughly 350,000 cumulative claims come into its claims center last week, LeVine said. She said that more than $67 million in unemployment benefits have been paid out since March 15.
That cumulative number is expected to grow as additional new claims related to the impacts of COVID-19 are filed in the coming weeks, she said.
“Things are not slowing down,” LeVine said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order last week that is in effect through April 6 and ordered all non-essential businesses to close through at least April 8. Those orders expanded previous actions taken by Inslee that ordered the statewide closure of bars, dine-in restaurants and entertainment and recreation facilities, and banned large gatherings. Inslee has indicated that those orders are likely to be extended soon as the state continues to try and contain the spread of COVID-19.
In Washington, there have been about 250 COVID-19 deaths and more than 5,900 confirmed cases. 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.
Officials say that Thursday’s numbers in Washington are seven times the peak week seen by the state during the 2008 recession.
LeVine said that while the numbers show that people are abiding by the governor’s orders, they also speak “to the hurt and the pain that we’re feeling in our economy and the challenges we are facing as a state.”
She said that the $2.2 trillion federal rescue package that was signed into law last week “comes just in time.”
The package includes $350 billion in small business loans that can be forgiven if the companies use the money to retain or rehire workers. This provision could help limit future layoffs or lead some companies to recall employees back to work.
The economic rescue package also added $600 a week in jobless aid, on top of what recipients receive from their states and extends 13 additional weeks of benefits beyond the six months of jobless aid that most states offer.
LeVine said Thursday she knows people have had challenges with the state website, and said they’re rolling out a technology fix this weekend for people who have been locked out of their accounts and have expanded call center hours during the week and added Saturday hours.