In a fresh sign of the pandemic's lingering economic impacts, thousands of jobless Washingtonians have collected their 52nd week of unemployment benefits and must now refile to keep that assistance coming.
That grim anniversary shows up in a recent surge of new, or "initial," claims for unemployment benefits filed with the state Employment Security Department (ESD). Last week, the agency reported 17,281 initial claims, up 45.7% from a week earlier. That sharp increase followed a more modest rise of 3.6% two weeks ago, after a month of steady declines.
Washington's increase contrasted with a 25% fall in claims nationally, to 576,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.
But much of the state's increase was technical: Many of the Washingtonians who applied for jobless benefits during the first wave of pandemic-related layoffs last spring have collected benefits for a year and are required under state regulations to reapply, said ESD spokesperson Nick Demerice.
"This is just the time where a whole lot of folks got on [unemployment insurance] last year," Demerice said. "I'd imagine we're going to see quite a few of these show up in the next several weeks."
Demerice says the expiration and refiling of preexisting claims is one reason that overall claims — new and ongoing claims — have remained largely steady in recent weeks. Since mid-March, that number has hovered between 435,675 and 426,803 and was at 428,521 last week.
New claims for federal pandemic unemployment benefits — which are available for workers not normally eligible for state benefits, such as freelancers and part-timers — have largely declined since mid-March, and were at 2,249 last week.
In another modest sign of economic recovery, the unemployment rate fell to 5.4% in March, from 5.6% a month earlier, the ESD reported this week. The national unemployment rate was 6% in March.
Still, even if Washington isn't seeing a sharp increase in claims from newly jobless Washingtonians, the four-week moving average for new claims remains at levels similar to those of the Great Recession, the ESD said.
The extended need for jobless benefits by many Washingtonians also shows the slow recovery in some job sectors, such as in health care and social assistance and in manufacturing, both of which saw increases in claims last week.
Some employers continue to cut jobs amid concerns over the state's COVID-19 case count, which has risen recently even as the state vaccination program is expanding rapidly, ESD officials have said. Starting Thursday, all Washingtonians 16 and older are eligible for a jab.
In March, the state added 23,100 jobs, down from a revised 33,200 in February, the ESD reported.
Congress in March extended federal pandemic benefits with the American Rescue Plan Act, which made benefits available through Sept. 4.
Last week, the ESD paid benefits on 300,117 individual claims, which was down 1.8% 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 $16.8 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.