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Whatcom County has one of the highest “unemployment rates” in Washington

Data from Washington’s Unemployment Security Department of initial unemployment claims by week since March in Whatcom County. // Graphic by Seth Stevens

By Seth Stevens

The struggle to obtain unemployment benefits continues, as Washington’s Unemployment Security Department said they have received more applications in the past seven weeks than the prior three and a half years combined.

“Since the COVID-19 crisis began in early March, Employment Security has sent $2.14 billion into the pockets of more than half a million Washingtonians,” Washington’s Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine stated. The original projected payout for all of Washington’s 2020 unemployment benefits was only half that at $1.07 billion.

Since the week ending March 7, there have been 810,538 distinct individuals that have applied for unemployment benefits. Of those, only 545,178 have been paid, leaving nearly 33% of people who have filed an initial claim still waiting on payment.

The Washington Unemployment Security Department’s most recent data does not include Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims that became available on April 18.

The program was created under the CARES Act to temporarily expand unemployment insurance to those that don’t qualify for regular Unemployment Insurance. It includes part-time workers, self-employed workers, freelancers and independent contractors.

In order to qualify for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, you must not be eligible for regular Unemployment Insurance. In order to get approved for pandemic assistance you must apply and get denied for regular unemployment benefits.

Since it is required to get denied regular unemployment benefits to get the pandemic assistance, the only data that includes people potentially seeking the assistance are the weekly initial claims. 

Whatcom County is not immune to the COVID-19 unemployment crisis. 31,184 initial unemployment claims have been filed in Whatcom County since the beginning of March.

But what is the actual unemployment rate in Whatcom County? Well it’s not all that simple, explained Washington Unemployment Security Department’s Regional Economist for Whatcom County, Anneliese Vance-Sherman.

Vance-Sherman explained that traditional unemployment rates are used calculating only those that are currently seeking work. Those currently receiving unemployment have been given the option to be placed on standby for 12 weeks, which means they are expecting to return to work once they are again safely able to.

Vance-Sherman explained that the only way they can attempt to calculate what “resembles an unemployment rate” is to take the number of unduplicated initial claims and compare it to the number of people that were in the labor force in February.

Utilizing what Vance-Sherman described as “a back of the napkin calculation,” Washington is currently at a 19% “unemployment rate.”

“The counties that are higher than that are the ones that you can see saltwater from,” Vance-Sherman said. She accredits that to the blow the tourism industry is experiencing in coastal cities.

“When we think about which industries have been hit the hardest … restaurants and tourism industries have been hit the hardest,” Vance-Sherman said.

According to the most recent data for Whatcom County, arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food service workers account for over 11% of the initial claims for the week ending May 2.

Using that same “back of the napkin calculation,” according to Vance-Sherman, Whatcom County has one of the highest “unemployment rates” in the state at 20%.

With such a large volume of claims coming in so quickly, it has left some people frustrated with the entire process. Riggs Mischke, a third-year student at Western, is one of these frustrated people.

Mischke explained that he was not eligible for regular unemployment benefits and had to wait until the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance became available since he is a part-time employee. “After finally being able to apply for [the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance], I was under adjudication,” Mischke explained.

Your Unemployment Insurance and pandemic assistance application may be placed under adjudication when they need to verify more information to ensure that you are eligible for those benefits. “Under normal circumstances, cases are adjudicated within 21 days,” LeVine stated.

Currently there are over 50,000 individuals awaiting the adjudication process before they receive all, or parts of their benefits. LeVine shared that it is their top priority to get through all of those in adjudication by June 15. “We will continue to work night and day until everyone receives their benefits,” LeVine stated in a press release.

“There was one day where I called them 178 times and I was only able to get through the automated system five times, then I was immediately disconnected because of high call volume,” Mischke stated.

Mischke finally received his pandemic assistance benefits in the beginning of May after weeks filled with attempting to contact the Unemployment Security Department for a status-update. “It was frustrating, because I had to pay my rent, and not knowing when I was going to get the money to do so made me anxious.”

Mischke was understanding toward the office during the process even though he described it as “totally confusing and inaccessible for people who have never gone through the process before.”

“Really, I am thankful for the benefits and just happy that I got them when I did, because I know there are still a lot of people waiting that really need them,” Mischke stated.

Mischke is expecting to go back to work at his job in retail once phase two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order begins.

Data from Washington’s Unemployment Security Department of initial unemployment claims by age since March in Whatcom County. // Graphic by Seth Stevens

People ages 24 and under account for more than one-in-five initial unemployment claims made since the beginning of March in Whatcom County. This number is expected to increase once Pandemic Unemployment Assistance data is included, due to most college students not being eligible for regular Unemployment Insurance.

Western’s Office of Communications Director Paul Cocke stated that they have conducted a survey of Western student employees to see how many of them were still able to work at least partial hours, and about 13% responded that they are not working any hours at all.

Cocke continued to explain that during the 2008-12 recession, Western implemented a hiring freeze and “there were around 80 actual layoff actions” during that same time period.

Western officials have taken similar steps by implementing a hiring freeze on April 2. This hiring freeze does not apply to student employees. Divisional vice presidents or the dean can make exemptions “for situations that meet immediate and critical functions,” according to a memo released by Western’s President Sabah Randhawa.

While many are still eagerly waiting for various unemployment benefits, Washington’s Unemployment Securities Department is preparing for a lengthy road to recovery. 

Vance-Sherman explained that it is a challenge to model how the recovery can happen, and what events they can look back on for guidance.

“It makes much more sense to me to think of it as what would happen with an earthquake, or any natural or manmade disaster,” Vance-Sherman stated. The main reasoning behind this is because other recessions have been somewhat of a gradual decline, but COVID-19 has been nothing of the sorts. “We didn't see it coming. It really blindsided us,” Vance-Sherman said.

While Washington watches other states across the U.S. begin to reopen, there seems to be no immediate end to this crisis in sight. “This is going to leave a scar,” Vance-Sherman stated, “and we’re going to see it and be recovering from it for some time.”

If you still need to apply for Unemployment Insurance or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance here are a some resources to help guide you through the process: 

  1. Unemployment benefits application checklist
  2. Pandemic unemployment assistance benefits guide
  3. Apply for UI and PUA

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