Job search required again for collecting unemployment

By Paul Roberts

The Seattle Times

The nearly 300,000 Washingtonians still filing for unemployment benefits will soon be required to look for work to keep those benefits coming.

The job-search requirement resumes July 4, the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) announced Wednesday.

“With the economy recovering, the job-search requirement is going back into effect,” the agency said on its unemployment website. That means claimants “will be required to look for work and document at least three approved job search activities each week in order to remain eligible for unemployment benefits.”

Some employers have said they’re hoping that the return of the requirement, suspended last spring to help slow the spread of COVID-19, will lead to a surge in applicants and help ease a labor shortage that has hit sectors, such as food service and retail.

But some experts think the job-search suspension, which other states also authorized after the pandemic struck, is only one of many factors behind the tight Seattle-area labor market, which one local economist warned might be “our ‘new normal.’”

The job-search announcement comes amid mixed signs of improvement in the state job market after last spring’s deep layoffs and the uneven recovery that has followed.

Last week, Washingtonians filed 8,868 new, or “initial,” claims for unemployment benefits, a 12.1% decrease from the prior week, the ESD reported Thursday. It was the third consecutive weekly decline.

Nationally, new jobless claims fell 2.3% to 376,000, the lowest level since the start of pandemic-related layoffs in March 2020, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.

Yet, Washington’s weekly claims remain high by historical standards — and are roughly on par with numbers seen during the Great Recession.

Hiring also appeared to be slowing. The latest jobs report, published by the ESD two weeks ago, showed Washington added just 11,200 jobs in April, down from 28,100 in March and 29,600 in February.

The total number of Washingtonians currently receiving unemployment remains high. Last week, the ESD paid benefits on 286,146 claims, which was down only 1.4% from the prior week. (Because individuals can have multiple claims, the number of those claims is often slightly higher than the number of individual claimants.)

What’s more, as of last week, nearly 150,000 Washingtonians had filed for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a federal benefit paid to claimants who exhaust their 26 weeks of regular state jobless benefits.

Eligible claimants receive a $300-a-week federal pandemic benefit on top of their state benefits. All told, Washingtonians on unemployment received an average weekly payment of $655.22, according to ESD data.

Some Washington employers have blamed the recent slowdown in job growth and the large number of claimants on both the extra federal benefit and the lack of a job-search requirement. Industry groups lobbied Gov. Jay Inslee to restore the requirement.

But state officials and some economists say the issue isn’t so clear-cut.

More than 40% of Washingtonians receiving unemployment benefits have continued to search for work despite the suspension of the requirement, said ESD spokesperson Nick Demerice.

Jacob Vigdor, an economist at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy, said the causes of the state’s labor shortage go beyond its unemployment policies.

Many workers are being kept away from work due to “the increased difficulty in finding child care [and] continuing concerns about health and safety in workplaces,” Vigdor said in an email.

Lack of child care was a key obstacle for several members of a local Facebook support group for unemployed workers.

“I’d like to work but I don’t even think I can until something with child care changes and in my area it’s really short,” said a mother of three in a post Wednesday.

Another mother who is expecting this summer said she has been unable to find day care for her toddler.

Some unemployed workers may be delaying looking for work until they feel comfortable that enough people are vaccinated, said Hart Hodges, an economist and co-director of Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research.

“That means people will start searching and start taking jobs just as a matter of course — regardless of ESD reinstating the search requirement,” Hodges said.

Even before the pandemic, the Seattle area was facing a tight labor market due to factors like high housing costs, Vigdor added.

Given such factors, some economists are not expecting a big change with the restoration of the job-search requirement or even the expiration of the extra $300 federal payment in September.

“If I were to consult my crystal ball, I’d predict that we’re going to see no perceptible change in the labor shortage situation here in the Puget Sound region,” said Vigdor.

“My guess is that people will not jump at the first job they find,” added Hodges.

The ESD will be alerting claimants about steps they need to take under the reinstated search requirements. Claimants will have to restart their job searches during the week of July 4-10 and will need to report those activities when filing claims starting the week of July 11 and continuing every subsequent week they are claiming benefits.

But claimants will be able to include a range of activities in their job-search reporting. These include applying for specific jobs but also related activities, such as résumé preparation, Demerice said.

“There’s a whole bunch of different activities that count as a work search,” he said.

Some labor advocates were disappointed to see the job-search requirement reinstated before the ESD had addressed some of the bottlenecks in processing claims.

As of this week, ESD reported an average of 9,500 claimants waiting three weeks or longer for payment, compared with more than 10,000 in May. Hold times for people calling the ESD help desk average 40 minutes, according to ESD data.

“We’d like to see ESD catch up with its backlog and commit to paying benefits promptly before adding new administrative burdens for workers to jump through,” said Sage Wilson, a spokesperson with the union-affiliated advocacy group Working Washington.

“Otherwise, new rules and requirements on job searches could simply mean more excuses for ESD to further delay benefits, unfairly disqualify applicants and issue overpayments.”