Unemployment applications surge 843% in Washington state amid coronavirus isolation order

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaking at a 2019 event in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Washington state has seen an unprecedented spike in unemployment applications amid an order for all non-essential workers to remain in their homes to slow the COVID-19 outbreak.

Applications for unemployment benefits surged 843% over the past week. There were 133,478 Washington residents who applied for the program over that time period. That’s up more than nine times higher from the week prior. Two weeks ago, the figure was around 6,000.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

“We’ve seen nothing like us in our state’s history,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday at a news conference.

The numbers track with layoffs and business closures throughout the state, including in the technology industry. Leafly, an online cannabis brand based in Seattle, let 91 employees go earlier this week. The Pacific Science Center laid off more than than 300 employees. Co-working startup The Riveter and clothing rental service Armoire temporarily furloughed employees.

“If you look at the unemployment numbers that are cascading in, this is going to be a deep trench that we’re going to have to get over,” Inslee said.

The record-high spikes in unemployment applications are not limited to Washington. Nearly 3.3 million Americans filed for federal unemployment assistance last week. The previous high was 695,000 in October 1982.

The numbers are among the first concrete indications of the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the U.S. economy. Pew Research found that 33% of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household have lost their job, suffered a pay cut, or reduction in hours.

But in Washington state, Inslee said there is a glimmer of hope even as positive tests for COVID-19 cases continue to increase.

“We have not turned the corner and we are not even close to the end of this battle, but we do think there’s some evidence that our community mitigation strategies … have been able to slow the rate of increase in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties,” he said.

On Sunday Inslee ordered Washington residents not to leave their homes except for essential activities such as doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and walks that maintain appropriate distance from other people. Businesses that are not deemed essential are shuttered. The order is in effect until April 6 but Inslee warned it, “may go on beyond two weeks and we have to be prepared for that.”

During a lighter moment, Inslee celebrated the ways Washingtonians are embracing technology to remain connected to each other. He showed screenshot of a multi-generational video chat with his own family.

“Washingtonians are understanding the importance [of staying] emotionally connected,” he said. “I’m hearing so many stories of families and friends who are really having great relationships electronically.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Washington state had 2,580 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 and 132 deaths associated with the virus. Though the rate of increase in cases is slowing, Inslee stressed the importance of maintaining isolation practices, both for public health and the economy.

“The only time we’re going to get back to full economic activity is by beating this virus … the sooner we can get on top of this, the faster our jobs can come back,” he said. “This is not just a health issue, it is an economic recovery strategy as well.”

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