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Washington unemployment skyrockets to 7 times higher than during great recession

Washington’s economy lost 11,100 jobs in March, according to new numbers from the state. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for March rose from 3.8% to 5.1%

SEATTLE — With quiet streets across Washington, many people are out of work because of social distancing.

Washington’s economy lost 11,100 jobs in March, according to new numbers from the state, and the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for March rose from 3.8% to 5.1%.

Officials believe those numbers still haven’t captured the impact of coronavirus – and won’t know more until the April report.

That’s led to record numbers of people applying for unemployment, the state Employment Security Department said.

Tens of thousands of people are calling, and need to talk to a representative, said Nick Demerice with ESD, which is overwhelming the system. ESD is scrambling to hire hundreds of people to handle the influx and bringing in other bodies from across the government, but it’s still creating a backlog.

RELATED: Washington workers can expect extra $600 in unemployment checks by next week

He said last week, initial claims were seven times higher than the biggest week of the great recession.

While simple claims filed online are still being processed and approved, more complicated claims or those with errors that need human intervention are getting stuck, Demerice said.

It’s a source of frustration for Mitzi Lawson, a massage therapist who rented space in a Gig Harbor salon before social distancing began and work dried up. She’s been trying to file for employment, but said she has been denied more than a dozen times and is frustrated with the many phone calls and hours of paperwork.

As someone who is self-employed, Lawson would not usually qualify for unemployment. But she believes she will be approved under the federal CARES act, which extended benefits to those impacted, including ‘many self-employed people and those that don’t have the typically required 680 hours.’

Washington also adopted new emergency rules during the pandemic.

“We’re happy to doing our part [staying home,] which I’m happy to do,” she said. “But we have to get paid. We have to live. It’s just ridiculous at this point.”

Demerice said he can’t speak to individual cases, but that there is a great deal of confusion out there surrounding expanded unemployment eligibility.

“It’s really complicated right now, and basically, the unemployment system can be tricky for anybody,” he said. “And what we have now is a massive number of folks who have never interacted with the system before, and they’re having to learn it in a stressful environment.”

He said the shortage of workers to resolve questions and issues the automated system can handle is also contributing to slowdowns.

Lawson has struggled to find resolution and money for weeks. KING 5 asked if that’s a symptom of a system that may be too complicated.

“I would say we are finding stresses in the system, and difficulties people are finding with the system that’s under stress, that we probably wouldn’t have seen before,” said Demerice.

He did have a word of advice for folks like Lawson who may be covered by the CARES expansion – hold off on filing your claim until Sunday, April 18. ESD will take the filing system offline Saturday to update it for the expanded benefits, to allow newly-included folks to work through the automated process effectively.

This is outlined in the FAQ on the department’s website. 

Demerice said it’s also “all hands on deck,” as the department prepares to handle claims from newly-eligible people this weekend. He said he, the executive team, even the commissioner will help with income verification to get people through the process.

They also plan to pre-qualify these people for the base amount when possible to expedite the process, then go back to add what they’re owed retroactively as they verify income.

He empathized with people that have been stuck waiting for financial help.

“We absolutely understand that, and understand peoples’ frustration,” he said. “We really are working to get those things taken care of as fast as we can.”

For Lawson, she’s glad to know there’s new hope after the weekend, but she’s still struggling without income.

“Oh I’m beyond frustrated,” she said.

RELATED: Confusion abounds as Washington residents apply for unemployment