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caption: Leslie Buker walks by Oddfellows Cafe + Bar, with a mural painted by Stacy Milrany displayed, on Sunday, March 22, 2020, on 10th Avenue in Seattle.
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Leslie Buker walks by Oddfellows Cafe + Bar, with a mural painted by Stacy Milrany displayed, on Sunday, March 22, 2020, on 10th Avenue in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Washington state proposes new unemployment benefits formula as federal dollars dry up

While The federal government grapples with how to extend support to millions of jobless people in a pandemic, Washington state has a message: Keep it simple.

Last week, jobless people in the U.S. lost a critical avenue of support: A $600 weekly federal income supplement to state unemployment benefits. In Washington state, that would average out to roughly $374 a week.

The $600 was considered too rich for some lawmakers, who wanted to dial back the amount for what is turning out to be long-term aid for millions of people. The payments have already lapsed.

Lawmakers are considering an interim package to cover the gap while they work out what a long-term support package would look like. One idea: Provide people with 70% of the income they received while working.

The problem, according to Washington's Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine, is that it could take "four or five months" for the state to calculate that amount for each unemployed Washingtonian. About 1.3 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic shutdowns began in March. Nearly a million people have qualified for payment.

If the federal government allows the state to adjust unemployment benefits to 70% of the Washington state average, that would bring weekly payouts up to about $938 a week. With the $600 supplement, the average benefit Washingtonians had been receiving was $974 a week. Without the federal supplement, the average Washingtonian would only receive $374 a week.

LeVine said many state employment departments lack the ability to pivot to a new system based on a percentage of actual income. But a simpler formula means implementation could happen in weeks. “We don't know what they will ultimately decide whether there would be an interim solution in place or not, but we stand ready," LeVine said.

Employment Security officials also said the department had cleared its backlog of cases in adjudication, which once stood at more than 80,000.

One result is that we now know how many people have applied for unemployment benefits and have been denied. The Employment Security Department said 318,714 people never received money because they were found to be ineligible.

LeVine said an unemployment check is not an entitlement, and that makes it a blunt instrument for providing economic relief in a pandemic.

"I do not believe it was the right solution overall, to use unemployment as our economic bolster,” LeVine said. But, she continued, it was the system we had.