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Unemployment claims at an all-time high

The economic recession was one of the most prominent news stories of 2009, with good reason, as more Washingtonians were unemployed, more received unemployment benefits and more sought job-search assistance than ever before.

Washington's Employment Security Department has reported year-end figures for 2009, including the fact that by Dec. 31, about 475,000 Washingtonians will have received unemployment benefits in 2009, compared to 290,000 in 2008.

The Employment Security Department will pay out nearly $4 billion in unemployment benefits in 2009, compared to $1.2 billion in 2008 and $725 million in 2007.

Although Employment Security has more than doubled the size of its unemployment-claims staff since the recession began, employees at the unemployment call centers worked about 65,000 hours of overtime this year to handle the dramatically increased work load.

In October, the unemployment rate in Washington reached 9.3 percent, the highest since the recession in the early 1980s.

The total number of unemployed workers in Washington reached an all-time high in March, at 344,000. This number includes only the unemployed who were actively seeking work, not those who would like a job but had quit looking.

Approximately 410,000 job seekers received employment counseling and assistance through local WorkSource centers in 2009, compared to about 275,000 in 2008. WorkSource is a statewide partnership of Employment Security and other state government, local government and non-profit agencies that provide a comprehensive array of employment and training services to job seekers and employers.

"This recession has shown how valuable it is to have a solvent unemployment insurance system that not only helps families pay their bills, but also sustains the local businesses where they spend their benefits," said Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee. "Without the $4 billion we've paid out in benefits this year, the recession would have had a bigger toll on the state."

On the brighter side, good things were reported, too.

Unemployment insurance tax rates in 2009 were the lowest in 40 years, with an average rate of 1.55 percent. The last time employers faced an unemployment tax increase was in 2004, as the state emerged from the last recession.

A record number of businesses turned to Employment Security's Shared-Work program in 2009 as a way to reduce payroll costs and avoid layoffs. The number of employers and employees approved to participate in the program has topped 2,700 and 47,000, respectively, in the past month compared to a peak of about 150 employers and 5,700 employees in 2008.

More than 5,700 disadvantaged teens and young adults in Washington had paying jobs last summer because of funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Jobs were arranged through local workforce development councils, which are part of the WorkSource career-development system. This was the first federally funded summer-job program for youths in a decade.

A study by Employment Security economists concluded that unemployed workers who used WorkSource job search services found jobs faster and earned more money than those who didn't seek WorkSource assistance.

Subjects of the study who received job search assistance from WorkSource were 37 percent more likely to find work within the review period than those who didn't receive the services, and they were on pace to earn about $2,500 to $3,000 more per year.

"We're seeing a lot more people who have never lost their jobs before," said Lee. "A lot of them need help learning how to look for work, and many will need to switch to a new occupation. WorkSource provides counseling, information and training services that are vital to job seekers in this economy."

More than 166,500 jobs have been lost in Washington since the peak in February 2008.

Since the start of the recession in Washington, nearly 13 percent of manufacturing jobs and nearly 27 percent of all construction jobs have been eliminated.

During the recession, 58 percent of the people on unemployment have been first-time claimants, compared to 48 percent during the two years preceding the recession.

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