New jobless claims jump 10% as business restrictions, consumer safety concerns spur layoffs

By Paul Roberts

The Seattle Times

New claims for unemployment benefits in Washington surged last week as the state’s job market continued to recoil from rising COVID-19 cases and tougher public health restrictions on businesses.

Washingtonians filed 24,587 new, or “initial,” claims for regular unemployment benefits last week, a 10.1% increase over the prior week, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported Thursday.

Nationally, initial claims rose 19.1% last week to 853,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Economists said last week’s jump in new state claims reflects rising COVID-19 cases and efforts to slow that surge through the heightened restrictions ordered Nov. 15 by Gov. Jay Inslee. On Monday, Inslee extended those restrictions by three weeks.

“The increase in claims this week follows the trend we’ve been observing in recent weeks,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, an ESD regional economist who covers the Seattle area. “This aligns with increased numbers of documented COVID-19 cases in Washington state, the third week of increased restrictions, and the seasonal rhythm of job loss that comes with shorter, colder days.”

Inslee’s Nov. 15 order was followed by a surge in new jobless claims, particularly in areas, such as food service, that were affected by the restrictions. Just three days after the restrictions were announced, for example, Elmer’s Restaurants in Vancouver and Tacoma laid off 94 workers, according to a notice filed with the ESD.

Although that surge in new claims seemed to fade by the following week, last week’s sharp increase suggests employers are being affected both by tougher restrictions and by consumer concerns over contracting COVID-19. “Business restrictions are part of it,” said economist James McCafferty, a director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University. “But … many consumers are simply choosing to not go somewhere in person.”

Sectors that saw the largest increases in new jobless claims last week included the construction industry, which typically sees seasonal layoffs this time of year. But the state also saw a rise in claims filed by workers in hospitals, child day care services, and services for the elderly and persons with disabilities.

The number of Washingtonians collecting unemployment benefits last week rose 6.4% to 298,296, the ESD reported.

Six percent of the state resident civilian workforce of 3.9 million was unemployed in October, the most recent month for which state data is available. That’s around 50% more than were unemployed in October 2019.

Some Washingtonians also are still seeing delays in receiving unemployment benefits.

As of last week, 26,689 claimants were not receiving benefits and were waiting for the ESD to resolve a question with their claim, the agency reported. That was a decrease of 4% from the prior week. The average time needed to resolve a delayed claim was 9.7 weeks, unchanged from the week before.

Since March 8, the ESD has paid out $12.8 billion in benefits, roughly two-thirds of that from federal funds, to about 1.09 million individuals.

But most federal funding for unemployment benefits expires at the end of the year unless Congress extends it.