Despite snow-related closures and overloaded telephone systems, the state’s Employment Security Department took in a record number of new unemployment claims in December.
Some 90,331 people applied for regular unemployment benefits in December, an increase of about 75 percent over December 2007. The previous record was set in December 2001, when 72,942 people filed initial claims.
The week of Dec. 21-27, 2008, which included the Christmas holiday, also set a one-week record, taking in 25,687 new unemployment claims, nearly twice as many as the same week in 2007.
Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee said the record numbers of applications are especially staggering, considering that the department’s unemployment call centers were closed or understaffed for several days in December due to snow and the offices were closed on Christmas Day.
“We knew the workload was skyrocketing, but were surprised when we saw the final numbers for the month,” said Lee. “We’ve been increasing our phone capacity as fast as possible in order to help people with their unemployment claims.”
In addition to adding phone lines, the department has doubled staff at its unemployment call centers since last summer and is working to hire and train additional staff.
At the end of 2008, more than 136,000 Washingtonians were receiving unemployment benefits, compared to 72,910 at the end of 2007.
Unemployment benefits are paid out of the state’s unemployment-insurance trust fund. The trust fund has a current balance of more than $4 billion and is considered to be one of the healthiest in the nation.
By law, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit is $541 and the minimum is $129. The average weekly payment in 2008 was about $350.