On Thursday, the Washington state Employment Security Department announced yet another record-breaking number of unemployment claims, with 181,975 claims for the week of March 22 to the 28.
The ESD said this was a 3,513% increase over this time last year, as well as 41% increase over the previous week.
The information comes as a federal memo suggests Americans could get direct payments from the stimulus package—as high as $1,200 per single adult—as soon as mid-April if the IRS has their direct deposit information. If the federal government does not have their information, checks could start going out at soon as late April but may take weeks to reach all Americans.
Local workers whose hours have been cut to part-time or who have been laid off completely are eager to see some of the benefits in the stimulus package, which includes an added $600 per week and benefits extended to workers who weren’t previously covered.
Brian Stermitz, a chef at Molly Moon’s, has seen his hours reduced from 40 hours a week to 20 hours a week.
“I’m eligible for up to $324 a week,” he said. “If I get all that, who knows?”
Bryant Peng was laid off as procurement manager for the restaurant group Sea Creatures.
“My employment status changed,” he said. “It was right around, I want to say it was March 15th.”
Nick Demerice with the Employment Security Department said their phones have been overwhelmed, even with extended hours of 7a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
It’s something Peng experienced when he had to call for some information.
“The voice message that came on was basically just saying, ‘Hey, we're experiencing a large number of calls right now,’” he said. “‘We're busier than usual. We're not going to put you on hold. Just try calling back at another time.”
Demerice said they're working to improve that. He estimates they’ve hired between 70 to 100 new people and are reassigning staff from other parts of the department or other parts of state government to meet demand.
He said they’re also fixing website issues people have complained about.
“Right now, there are some issues with people getting locked out of their accounts,” Demerice said. “Right now, they have to call in to the call center to fix that. Hopefully by Saturday that should be fixed.”
But big questions surround the federal stimulus package and how soon some of the money allocated in it could flow to Washingtonians.
Demerice said the package will extend benefits to some workers who don't normally get them, like people who didn't work full-time last year or are self-employed.
“The goal here is that everyone will receive a baseline benefit,” he said, “and whether that's provided through traditional unemployment assistance, [which is] unemployment insurance through the state, or through this new federal pot, [which is] the pandemic unemployment assistance, that would provide your base benefit.”
Then, on top of that, the stimulus provides for another $600 per week.
But Demerice cautions that people who are already getting unemployment likely won’t see their checks increase with those $600 payments until after April 18, which is when the ESD aims to get its technology updated and ready.
And people who would be newly eligible for assistance due to the federal stimulus, like self-employed workers, shouldn’t apply until April 18, he said.
“I would encourage folks to go on our website, read through that information first,” Demerice said. “If you are clearly not eligible, say you're self-employed or you just got a job last month, and you've only worked a handful of hours, don't apply right now because you're almost certainly going to get denied.”
Demerice said ESD says people should sign up for updates on their website: https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/WAESD/signup/15249
He said benefits will be retroactive back to people’s eligibility dates, even if it takes some time for them to get paid.
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