By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press
OLYMPIA — More than $1.4 billion in unemployment benefits have been paid out in Washington since business closures and layoffs related to the coronavirus pandemic started mid-March, and state officials said Thursday they are preparing for up to 1 million claims to be filed by Sunday.
More than 605,000 claims for unemployment benefits — with some of that number reflecting people who filed multiple claims seeking retroactive payments — were filed for the week of April 12-18, with 82,435 of those claims being filed for the first time.
Of the total amount paid out so far, $900 million has been paid out since last Saturday night, after the state updated its system so that previously ineligible employees — like independent contractors and part-time employees who work fewer than 680 hours — could start applying for benefits under the expansion of unemployment benefits passed by Congress.
The updated system also added two other elements from the federal economic rescue package: an additional $600 a week in jobless aid, on top of what recipients receive from the state, and an additional 13 weeks of benefits beyond the 26 weeks offered in Washington state. The maximum weekly benefit in the state is $790 a week, and the additional $600 will be paid retroactive back to March 29.
Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said that while final numbers on the number of people who applied last weekend won’t be available until next week, in the 36-hour period after the system was updated, the number of new claims “substantially” exceeded their previous weekly record of nearly 182,000 the last week of March.
“The response and demand we received immediately dwarfed all previous records that we’ve experienced,” she said.
LeVine said that because of the new update and the high volumes the agency is dealing with, she knows that some are still struggling to get their application processed, and they the department is working to get claims processed quickly.
She said that Sundays and Mondays see the highest volume of applications, and with the surge of claims expected in the next few days, she asked all except those with dire financial needs to try to file their applications later in the week if possible so that the department can prioritize the claims and “ensure those with the most need receive their money first.”
“It will also help us keep our systems and our phone lines up and running, which will speed up the process for everyone,” she said.
The state’s stay-at-home order that closed all non-essential businesses is currently in place through the end of May 4, though Gov. Jay Inslee said this week that the state won’t be able to lift many of the restrictions at that time and said that any reopening of the economy will have to be phased in.
Over the past five weeks, about 26 million Americans nationwide have filed for unemployment aid due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus.
More than 12,400 people in Washington state have tested positive for the virus and at least 692 have died. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.