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Washington, Oregon see unprecedented surge in unemployment claims

WA Employment Security Department
Information from the Washington Employment Security Department on filing for unemployment benefits due to COVID-19

Mirroring the national trend, Washington and Oregon are experiencing an unprecedented spike in unemployment claims caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last week, 133,464 Washingtonians and 76,500 Oregonians filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits. In Oregon, that represents a 15-fold increase in claims from the previous week. In Washington, the increase was more than eight-fold. “We haven't seen anything like this in volume and velocity in the history of our unemployment insurance program going back to the 1930s,” said Suzi LeVine, the commissioner of the Washington Employment Security Department. The number of weekly unemployment claims was five times higher than during the peak week of the 2008-2009 recession.

As you might expect, the industries with the biggest surges in layoffs were accommodations and food service. Arts and entertainment also saw "phenomenal" job losses and retail trade registered bigtime.

In Washington state, Spokane County experienced the highest rate of increase in claims for the week ended March 23. Snohomish and San Juan counties also recorded staggering percentage increases.

State officials cautioned the numbers may continue to rise in the coming weeks.

"Right now, just from a pure policy perspective and with the shelter in place that is taking place, I have a feeling that we are going to continue to see a large amount of growth when it comes to our initial claims. It has not peaked yet,” said Steve Ross, the labor market information director for the Washington Employment Security Department.

Commissioner LeVine says the department now has three clear priorities: to expand eligibility for benefits, to get benefits out more quickly to those who are eligible, and to help employers find staff for essential jobs.

The department is adding call center and processing staff as fast as it can, but applicants may still encounter trouble filing.

LeVine noted that significant numbers of new jobs are opening up in the grocery, health care, warehouse and package delivery sectors. Unemployment counselors are encouraging the newly laid off to consider switching to a new employer.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Deborah is an award–winning radio and television journalist whose career spans more than three decades. As the recipient of a 2018-2019 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship, Deborah is currently focusing her reporting on adolescents and mental health.