A delivery driver leaves a Domino’s Pizza restaurant in downtown Seattle on a bike Sunday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A delivery driver leaves a Domino’s Pizza restaurant in downtown Seattle on a bike Sunday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Virus shutdowns cause huge spike in state’s jobless claims

Nine times the usual number of people filed for unemployment in Washington last week.

OLYMPIA — Washington was among several states that saw a surge in claims for unemployment benefits 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 that 133,464 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed with the state during the week of March 15-21, a more than nine-fold increase over the previous week.

The state agency has been averaging between 13,000 and 25,000 phone calls a 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% 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.”

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 the jobs can be done remotely.

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.

In California, claims for unemployment benefits more than tripled last week to 187,000. In New York, they rose by a factor of five to 80,334. Nationwide, about 2.25% of the entire workforce applied for jobless aid last week. In Nevada, the figure was 6.8%, in Rhode Island 7.5%.

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

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

In Washington, there are more than 3,200 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 147 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.

Inslee said that people should be prepared for the two-week shutdown to be extended. He said officials will continue to look at the data, but they want to make sure that they don’t lift the stay-at-home order before the virus is contained.

“It would not be sufficient to knock down this curve for two weeks and then have it come roaring back,” Inslee said. “And that is a distinct possibility.”

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.

In addition, one element of an economic relief bill nearing final approval in Congress would provide an extra $600 a week on top of the unemployment aid that states provide. Another would extend 13 additional weeks of benefits beyond the six months of jobless aid that most states offer.

The new legislation would also extend unemployment benefits, for the first time, to gig workers and others who are not on company payrolls.

Separate legislation passed last week provides up to $1 billion to states to enhance their ability to process claims. But that money will take time to be disbursed.

Inslee said that it’s important to help people affected during this time, but said that the economic pause is necessary to get things back to normal long-term.

“There is no way to have a healthy economy and have this virus keep ravaging us for years,” Inslee said. “The sooner we can get on top of this, the faster our jobs will come back.”

Associated Press economics writer Christopher Rugaber contributed from Washington, D.C.

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