State unemployment offices in Washington and Oregon have been instructed by the federal government to stop releasing daily claim totals before the U.S. Department of Labor can issue its regularly scheduled weekly report.
The mandate followed a huge spike in unemployment linked to COVID-19. State officials, responding to an extraordinarily high number of information requests from the media and public, issued fast and detailed figures illustrating the scope of the crisis.
On Wednesday, the Oregon Employment Department reported that claims seeking unemployment insurance “rose from approximately 800 on Sunday, March 15 to a total of 18,500 on Tuesday, March 17.”
The same day, the Washington State Employee Security Department disclosed that its website “had 280,000 users on Monday and Tuesday, for more than 500,000 users in just two days. Typically, we would expect 30,000 users during that time.”
The federal government moved quickly to stem the dissemination of details at the state level. Nick Demerice, spokesman for the Washington office, said that shortly after the state departments’ announcements, “there was a clarification letter that came from the Department of Labor.”
“It reminded folks about the timeline for reporting and then making those numbers public,” he said.
The New York Times reported on the letter late Thursday. It was sent to state labor officials across the country and told the state departments they could only address the spike in unemployment “using generalities.” It also asked that they keep specific numbers under embargo until March 26, when the U.S. Department of Labor will release its regular weekly report.
The state departments typically only release unemployment claim numbers every seven days, looking at the previous week (the most recent report, issued Friday, covered the period from March 8 to March 14).
The information released Wednesday was outside the state unemployment departments’ usual public reporting norms.
In response to the letter from the Department of Labor, Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the Washington unemployment office, issued a statement explaining why she felt releasing the bleak state-level data early was necessary.
“While I appreciate their reminder on standard operating procedure and recognize that the (U.S. Department of Labor) confirmed we can speak in generalities about the scale of what we’re facing, what we are experiencing now is anything but standard,” LeVine wrote.
“The data we have about new claims can assist us in planning our responses, projecting the impact, and serving the needs of our state,” she added. “We are evaluating our information dissemination efforts right now to best meet the needs of our state.”
Why the info lockdown?
Demerice said there could be a few reasons behind the federal government’s request to lock down the state-level information.
“Our data folks would tell you that they want to make sure the data is correct, and tabulated and checked and double-checked,” Demerice said. “I have also heard discussion about how this information could be influential to financial markets.”
A Department of Labor spokesperson told CNN on Friday that because statistics about unemployment claims have the potential to affect policy decisions and financial markets, “it is important to ensure the information is communicated in a consistent and fair manner.”
The weekly report issued by the Department of Labor on Friday shows that new unemployment claims filed in Washington between March 8 and March 14 rose by 116 percent.
The data released by state offices this week would indicate that the situation has grown much more dire since then.
Officials with the Washington and Oregon unemployment departments also told The Columbian on Tuesday that their offices were in overdrive working to process claims from people unemployed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Gail Krumenauer, the Oregon Unemployment Department’s communications manager, said the department was working to shore up its online server to handle the enormous spike in applicant traffic. Approximately 70,000 Clark County residents work in Oregon.
“We are actively working on also supplementing our existing staff that are in those contact centers so we have more capacity,” Krumenauer said.