Washington state unemployment site buckles under demand as thousands attempt to file jobless claims

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Out of work Washingtonians reported frustrating delays over the weekend as they sought to file jobless claims. Washington state opened applications for new federally financed unemployment programs Saturday night, but the website was quickly overwhelmed by a surge of traffic.

The federal government’s $2 trillion CARES ACT expanded unemployment benefits to cover self-employed and part-time workers to help millions of Americans who are out of work due to the coronavirus crisis. But Washington is struggling to keep up with demand for the program.

“It’s critical that folks know that people will get their money,” said Suzi LeVine, commissioner of Washington’s Economic Security Department. “UI benefits won’t run out and we will pay people benefits retroactive to their date of eligibility. We are hearing that people are concerned that we’ll run out or that they have a limited time to apply. That is not the case at all.”

Gig workers, independent contractors, and people who have seen their hours or income reduced are eligible for unemployment benefits under the expanded parameters. That means large swaths of the workforce who previously could not file jobless claims are able to for the first time. The expanded pool, coupled with the economic impacts of the pandemic, are driving unprecedented traffic to sites administering the programs.

The Washington State Economic Security Department updated its website and online services before opening applications at 8 p.m. Saturday. The department said initial delays were the result of “an extremely high volume of visitors.”

Before Sunday, the website was fielding 1-1.2 million page views per day. LeVine said the site is now seeing that volume of traffic every two hours. The department is working to add capacity and doubling its customs service team by the end of the week.

“Despite the challenges we ran into yesterday, it was beyond historic in terms of the total number of people who were able to apply as well as the amount of money we will issue in benefits,” LeVine said.

Nearly 600,000 Washington state residents have filed unemployment claims in recent weeks, part of a national trend in which more than 22 million Americans are out of work. Federal stimulus programs are beginning to provide relief but they are similarly swamped with demand. The Paycheck Protection Program designed to help small businesses stay afloat ran dry in less than two weeks, leaving Congress to scramble for additional funding.


The surge in demand for expanded unemployment benefits isn’t likely to let up in the near-term. A survey of Washington businesses by the National Main Street Center for the Downtown Seattle Association found 76% have employees at risk for layoffs or unemployment as a result of the crisis. Some 37% said they will last less than 2 months before having to close permanently under current conditions, though the numbers skew toward small towns in Washington, rather than big cities.

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