by Carolyn Bick
Washingtonians who were previously unable to claim unemployment may now find themselves eligible for benefits.
At a press conference on April 16, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine announced an expansion to the state’s unemployment benefits program by implementing certain parts of the federal CARES Act, a response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
LeVine said the move includes extending unemployment eligibility to those who had previously been ineligible, such as independent contractors and the self-employed. It will also increase the weekly benefit by $600 for anybody on unemployment insurance, as well as for those participating in a shared work program at a business that has reduced employees’ hours, but used unemployment insurance to provide employees with partial wage replacement.
The expansion will also increase the amount of time someone may be on unemployment insurance by 13 weeks, bringing up the total time to 39 weeks.
These benefits will be employed retroactively to a person’s date of eligibility. People must continue to file weekly claims, in order to continue receiving checks.
LeVine encouraged people to prepare themselves ahead of time, if they choose to file for unemployment. This includes keeping up-to-date with alerts on the Employment Security Department (ESD) website, checking eligibility status, and going through the application checklist. If they have not already, people will need to sign up for a SecureAccess Washington account to apply.
Self-employed workers and contractors will need to upload their own wage data for ESD. However, LeVine said the department recognizes this will take time, and will provide those with pending unemployment claims who lack wage data the minimum weekly benefit of $235 from the state’s unemployment assistance program plus the extra $600 from the federal CARES Act for a total of $835 per week. The ESD will continue to provide this, while it verifies their wage documentation. Once wage data is verified, the ESD will retroactively pay these workers for any difference.
People may find themselves rejected for unemployment benefits, under the current unemployment criteria, but may be eligible under the expanded unemployment criteria. In this case, they will be redirected to another part of the site, which handles those who fall under the expansion criteria.
LeVine said the update will begin Saturday, April 18. Because of this, customer service lines will be offline most of the day, but she said the lines would be up and running again on Sunday, April 19 for people to call with questions or help. She also said the ESD is increasing staffing to meet the expected increase in demand. By the end of the week, she said, there will be 500 people doing customer service. At the end of next week, there will be more than 1,000.
All non-essential work at the ESD has been postponed, LeVine said, but the site will be “very bare bones,” and may be “clunky” to use, because ESD staff will only have had one day to work on it.
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.