State agency sees significant rise in unemployment claims

State agency sees significant rise in unemployment claims

While regional officials say it’s too early to gauge economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Spokane County, the Washington State Employment Security Department is experiencing an “unprecedented demand” for services as businesses close temporarily and reduce hours and numbers of employees.

The employment security department earlier this week reported a 150% increase in statewide unemployment claims during the first week of March.

More than 369 unemployment insurance claims were filed in Spokane County during the first week of March, compared with 342 claims filed a week prior, according to the employment security department.

But that data doesn’t include claims filed after Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday mandated a two-week closure of bars, restaurants, entertainment and recreation facilities.

“The first week in March, we didn’t see a big jump,” Doug Tweedy, regional economist for the Washington State Employment Security Department, said of the Spokane County numbers. “We do expect those initial claims to go up and, also, we have more people that will be eligible for unemployment insurance. It is taking a little longer to hit Spokane, but we do expect to see those claims jump up in the next couple of weeks.”

Unemployment claims are increasing nationwide after government officials ordered millions of workers, students and shoppers to stay at home to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits surged last week by 70,000 to the highest level in more than two years, indicating the effect of the coronavirus was starting to be felt in an increasing number of layoffs, the Associated Press reported.

The state employment security department received more than 19,200 calls Tuesday – an 827% increase in call volume compared with the same day last week. Its website had a combined 500,000 users Monday and Tuesday. Typically, the website experiences traffic from 30,000 users during that time, according to a department news release.

SharedWork, a layoff aversion program that employers can use to reduce hours of their staff but avoid laying them off, experienced a more than 500% increase last week from its usual volume, according to the department.

Tweedy said employees are using sick leave before applying for unemployment claim insurance. That’s one reason why Spokane County hasn’t yet seen a large increase in claims.

The restaurant sector is expected to drive the most demand for unemployment claims in the coming weeks, he said.

“As people run through their sick leave, we’ll see unemployment claims for other industries, but it’s too early to know if that’s going to be confined to two or three industries, or across the board,” he said. “It depends on the virus spread.”

There is no doubt, however, the economic impact of the pandemic already is manifesting itself locally.

When Indaba Coffee owner Bobby Enslow heard about Inslee’s proclamation ordering restaurants, coffee shops and similar establishments to temporarily close and reduce service to takeout orders, he said he had to lay off dozens of employees.

“We went essentially from 40 employees down to eight. We basically just have maintained as many full-time employees as we could,” said Enslow, who operates three coffee shops in Spokane.

Some of Enslow’s employees are among those who may seek jobless benefits. Enslow also created a “virtual tip jar” for the community to support baristas through Venmo donations.

The West Plains Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Spokane Partnership, Visit Spokane and Greater Spokane Incorporated, which is Spokane’s chamber of commerce and economic development council, distributed a survey to local businesses this week seeking insights on resources and needs amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are hopeful in the next week we’ll receive enough responses to have some usable information out of it,” said Alisha Benson, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said earlier this week.

The business community is abiding by recommendations put forth by the Spokane Regional Health District and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as social distancing, hand-washing and working remotely. Manufacturing companies – some of which are critical in packaging materials needed to respond to the health crisis – are asking for additional guidance, Benson said.

The financial impact of the coronavirus on the region is not yet known, Benson said, adding that GSI relies heavily on data from the county and state departments.

“As the next couple of weeks unfold, we will continue to get a clearer picture of that impact,” she said. “It depends on how deep and how long business closures continue during the public health crisis.”

For now, Indaba Coffee’s Enslow said he plans to bring back “as many employees as possible” when the business returns to full operation.

“So far, we haven’t had to close any locations,” he said. “We just reduced hours. My goal is to stay open as long as it’s financially feasible. I’m working a lot more hours myself, too.”


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