Entire sectors of the economy have ground to a halt in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, leaving swaths of people unemployed virtually overnight.
Some have been laid off. Others technically still have their jobs but are being asked to take unpaid time off. Still others are going into work, but they’ve seen their scheduled hours dwindle from full time to almost nothing, and so are effectively unemployed.
It’s hard to know yet the full scope of what’s happening, said Nick Demerice, public affairs director for the Washington Employment Security Department. But anecdotally, the state unemployment office saw a “tremendous” uptick in claims and inquiries on Tuesday.
“The data that we report publicly, based on federal direction, is about seven to 10 days old, so we won’t see these volumes start to show up for a week or two,” Demerice said Tuesday.
“We are getting reports of people having some trouble getting through on the phones.”
Over the weekend, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all bars and restaurants to close, except to provide to-go orders, effective March 16, and banned public gatherings of more than 50 people. Major retailers, from Apple to Nike, shut their doors. Public buildings, including all city-run facilities in Vancouver, shuttered.
“It’s impossible for us to know how many folks potentially will apply for unemployment insurance,” Demerice said.
What makes the current unemployment crisis unique, he added, is its total abruptness. Prior economic crises, like the Great Recession, ramped up slowly, with warning signs along the way. People lost their jobs over a long period, and there was enough time to process claims as they trickled in.
Not so for COVID-19, when efforts to “flatten the curve” — or slow the spread of the virus through social distancing to avoid overwhelming medical resources — have the opposite effect on unemployment resources, costing thousands of jobs across the state all at the same time.
“This is all happening at once,” Demerice said. “We really are, unfortunately, the tip of the spear, and several weeks ahead of many other states.”
Leaders at the state office are watching Capitol Hill closely to see how federal legislation might affect their own operations. One potential outcome, Demerice said, would be for lawmakers to unlock Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars for unemployment payouts, instead of relying on the state’s usual trust fund. FEMA has been used to help compensate for lost wages in the wakes of other natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina.
On Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers floated a $1 trillion relief package that would include direct payments to workers who lost wages. If enacted, it’s unclear how that might interact with unemployment insurance.
The takeaway? Even if your first claim for unemployment insurance isn’t approved, that doesn’t mean you’re up a creek. The situation is evolving rapidly, and the number of people who qualify for benefits could increase.
“Even if you go through the process and you don’t qualify today, keep checking back,” Demerice said. “It’s changing literally every day.”
Do I qualify for help?
If you work in Washington and have seen your wages hurt as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, start at esd.wa.gov.
If you were laid off outright, or your employer went out of business, you probably qualify for regular unemployment benefits.
If you’re temporarily laid off because of slow business, you may also receive those benefits, minus the usual requirement that you prove you’re actively searching for work — that grants you standby status. Part-time employees may also qualify for standby status if they meet a certain work hour threshold.
Employers who have been forced to cut back hours for their employees can apply for standby status, which streamlines the process for workers. Employers can also check and see if they qualify for the department’s SharedWork program, which was designed to stabilize businesses during financial crises.
“The best way to figure out if you’re eligible for unemployment is to apply,” Demerice said. “We are really trying to work with folks to figure out how we can get them qualified.”
The fastest option is to apply online. You can also start the process via phone by calling 800-318-6022. The current high volume of claims means that callers should expect long wait times, and Demerice said the office encourages people to take advantage of the queued callback option.
It’s possible that the flood of unemployment inquiries could slow down processing times, but it’s too soon to say for sure. During normal periods, straightforward claims usually take a little over a week.
“The good news is the unemployed insurance program is a mature system that’s been around for a very long time,” Demerice said, adding that most of the process is automated. “We are really well-positioned to be able to respond quickly and handle high volumes.”
Cases that require more hands-on attention from staff, or more back-and-forth information requests between the applicant and the department, could take longer.
What if I work in Oregon?
The approximately 70,000 Clark County residents who commute over the Columbia River should keep in mind that, should they lose wages as a result of COVID-19, their unemployment insurance won’t come from Washington.
The Oregon Employment Department handles claims related to lost jobs or cut hours for workers within Oregon’s borders, regardless of where those workers live.
Still, the broad strokes at OED are the same as in Washington, said Gail Krumenauer, the department’s communications manager. The office saw an enormous uptick in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits on Tuesday, and they’re currently working to make sure that their online filing system can handle the traffic.
“With the dramatic increase in interest over the past day or so, there are wait times. We are actively working on also supplementing our existing staff that are in those contact centers so we have more capacity,” Krumenauer said.
And like Washington, nobody at Oregon Employment Department is entirely sure yet just how many workers have been left in the lurch by the coronavirus outbreak.
“I don’t know. It’s so new. We’re literally on full day one,” Krumenauer said. “Usually we get a lead time when something like this happens.”
Workers in Oregon may also qualify for unemployment and standby status. For more information, visit oregon.gov/employ/Pages/COVID-19.aspx, call the department toll-free at 877-345-3484, or call the Portland office directly at 503-292-2057.