Unemployment insurance claims spike in Whatcom County

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Initial claims applications for unemployment insurance soared in Whatcom County during the week of March 15 to 21, according to data released by Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD).

There were 4,428 initial claims during that week, compared to 238 claims the week before. Since the start of the year, the most initial claims filed during any given week was 474.

Statewide, 133,464 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed with ESD during the week of March 15 to 21, which was an increase of 119,310 new claims over the previous week, when just 14,154 claims were filed.

“This data shows the enormity of the situation unfolding in our state,” said ESD commissioner Suzi LeVine. “The velocity and volume of the impact of COVID-19 has created a crisis that is unprecedented in the history of the program – going back to the 1930s when it was established.”

LeVine said that her department was working on getting benefits out more quickly to those who are eligible; expanding eligibility for those who can utilize this benefit; and helping employers find staff for essential jobs. “The entire department is doing everything we can to meet the needs of this situation and our fellow Washingtonians,” she said.

New claims include individuals who filed first-time claims as well as additional claims filed by individuals as a result of a new unemployment event. New claims include claims that are still being reviewed for eligibility. Counts for new claims are not indicative of the number of claims that will result in monetary compensation. “Counts are estimated due to the unprecedented volume of claims,” said ESD’s March 26 news release.

Statewide, the industry sectors that experienced the highest percentage of new claims from March 15 to 21 were accommodation and food services (41,309 new claims, up 1,033 percent from the previous week), health care and social assistance (18,902 new claims, up 2,103 percent from the previous week), retail trade (8,700 new claims, up 1,189 percent from the previous week) and manufacturing (5,276 new claims, up 434 percent from the previous week).

Nationwide, in the week ending on March 21, there were 3,283,000 initial claims, an increase of 3,001,000 from the previous week’s revised level, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). “During the week ending March 21, the increase in initial claims are due to the impacts of the COVID-19 virus,” DOL noted in a March 26 news release. “Nearly every state providing comments cited the COVID-19 virus’ impacts. States continued to cite services industries broadly, particularly accommodation and food services. Additional industries heavily cited for the increases included the health care and social assistance, arts, entertainment and recreation, transportation and warehousing and manufacturing industries.”

Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist with ESD, said she expected the number of unemployment insurance claims to continue rising in Washington state. “This is going to continue to climb,” she said. “There’s a bit of a regional progression happening, and it coincides with a lot of the guidelines issued by the governor.”

During the most recent reporting period, March 15 to 21, school closures went into effect. Governor Inslee also ordered all bars, restaurants, entertainment and recreational facilities to close and prohibited all gatherings of more than 50 people. “That’s when we saw the floodgates open,” Vance-Sherman said. “For every county in the state, we saw a huge influx of unemployment.”

But the most recent statistics do not reflect Inslee’s March 23 stay-at-home order, which allowed people to leave home only for necessities and permitted only “essential” businesses to stay open. “Just because of the increasing restrictiveness, I expect that to show up in the numbers next week,” Vance-Sherman said. The next round of unemployment insurance statistics was due to be released publicly on Thursday, April 2.

Vance-Sherman said that while earlier figures showed a heavy impact on the tourism and hospitality sectors, such as bars, hotels and restaurants, she is now seeing unemployment insurance claims across all industries. “One thing that struck me is that when I’m looking at the data, every single industry is showing up. I was expecting to see more of a disparate pattern, but it really showed up in all industries. This is unprecedented for the numbers to rise as high and as quickly as they are.”

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