SEATTLE — Washington state enabled the CARES Act provisions this weekend, expanding unemployment eligibility and paving the way for an additional $600 in weekly benefits.
Although federal lawmakers passed the CARES Act more than two weeks ago, the state says it just received guidance from the Department of Labor this week on the components of the CARES Act and how to manage the benefits.
Applicants can now apply and receive the new benefits through the state employment security site.
“We don't know exactly how many people will come in and apply once we've implemented the changes in our system after the 18th, but we expect it to be significant, and we're doing all we can to be ready,” said Suzi LeVine, Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) commissioner.
Under the CARES Act, independent contractors, self-employed workers and those who worked fewer than 680 hours last year are all eligible for unemployment benefits. Also, those already on unemployment can get an additional $600 a week and 13 more weeks of benefits if needed.
If you do plan to apply for unemployment, the state urges applicants not to call, because it is reserving the phones only for those who absolutely need to call with claim issues. So far 60% of the office’s calls have been for questions that could be answered online and not claims, and ESD has seen a 1,000% increase in call volumes.
ESD asked applicants to be as prepared as possible before filing a claim, including signing up for action alerts online, watching sign-up videos online, using the state checklist and using the eligibility checker.
“While there will still be some people with complexities that need customer service, this preparedness should help a majority of applicants, especially on the upgraded and expanded system,” said LeVine. “Again, the more prepared, the faster they get their money.”
Between March 29 and April 4, there were 170,063 new applications for unemployment in Washington state. ESD processed 485,000 total claims over that week with about $150 million paid out since mid-March, which was when the state started seeing COVID-related claims.
These numbers are seven times that of the peak week that Washington saw during the 2008-2009 recession. That's likely related to the fact that no new major industries are being added because of the stay-at-home orders.
The state says unemployment claims and payouts will get higher when they go online with the federal updates, but they say the positive news is that means more people will be eligible and get benefits. Once approved, people should get paid within five to seven days.
Top questions about coronavirus and unemployment
These are some of the top questions ESD has seen from workers regarding coronavirus and applying for unemployment:
1. What if I need to take time off work because I contracted COVID-19?
The first and best option is to take employer paid time off. If leave isn't available, look into Washington’s paid family and medical leave program, which generally provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for yourself or a family member. Federal pandemic unemployment assistance may also help.
2. What if I am asked by a medical professional to quarantine but I am not sick?
If you're not getting paid sick leave from your employer, you might be eligible to receive regular unemployment – that's made on a case by case basis. And then, if you do not qualify under regular unemployment, you likely qualify under the expanded benefits from the CARES Act.
3. What do I do if I got sick from COVID-19 while at work?
That's when you need to contact the Department of Labor and Industries, because you might be eligible for workers' compensation.
4. Do I qualify for unemployment if I become seriously ill and am forced to quit my job as a result of coronavirus?
Chances are here, you don't qualify for regular unemployment, but you might be able to get federal pandemic unemployment assistance or paid family and medical leave while you're sick. Once you recover and are able to work, you can then apply for unemployment.
Do you have a question or concern about money during the coronavirus pandemic? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.