Jobless Claims Edge Up in Washington State on Mixed News About Coronavirus Pandemic


New unemployment claims in Washington rose modestly last week — a sign that the pandemic is still eliminating jobs even as the state's COVID-19 vaccination program accelerates.

Washingtonians filed 11,445 new, or "initial," claims last week, a 0.5% increase from the previous week, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported Thursday.

Nationally, new jobless claims rose 9.3% to 719,000 last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.

Washington's increase in new claims comes amid mixed news about the state's economic recovery.

Although the state vaccination program is expanding rapidly — on April 15, all Washingtonians 16 and over will be eligible for a jab — the number of COVID-19 cases has been ticking back up in recent weeks.

The rising case count, which comes after weeks of steady declines, may be encouraging employers to shed jobs even as the economy reopens.

The number of new claims filed last week, though just a fraction of the number a year ago as the pandemic was ramping up, is still roughly double the level from this same week in 2019.

Jobless claims were especially heavy in the construction sector, which saw 1,846 new claims last week, and restaurants and hotels, with 1,088.

Despite strong job growth in February, the state's job market remains well behind its pre-pandemic levels. In February, the state's total labor force stood at 3,837,400, or 124,600 fewer than in February 2020, the ESD reported last week.

But the week brought encouraging economic news, too. Amazon announced plans this week to "return to an office-centric culture" — and said that most of its working-from-home workforce would come back to the office by the fall.

Amazon's decision, which contrasts with hybrid workplace plans of some other tech firms with Seattle-area operations, buoyed businesses and business leaders in urban cores like downtown Seattle, where commercial activity fell dramatically when office workers were sent home.

Although the Seattle area's unemployment rate recently has been lower than the statewide level — 5.4% versus 5.8% in February, according to ESD figures — it remains more than twice the 2.6% level from February 2020.

The total number of weekly, or continuing, claims filed in Washington last week fell nearly 1% from the prior week, to 413,021.

Last week, the ESD paid benefits on 310,221 individual claims, which was up around 1% from the prior week. Because individuals can have multiple claims, the number of claims is often slightly higher than the number of individual claimants.

Since March 2020, more than 1 million Washingtonians have been paid more than $16.3 billion in jobless benefits, with roughly two-thirds of the money coming from the federal government.

By comparison, in each of the previous 10 years, the ESD's annual payout averaged just over $1 billion, the ESD said.