Monday, October 26, 2020
Oct. 26, 2020

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Clark County’s unemployed struggle as new federal program rolls out

Salmon Creek man among unresolved cases, awaits benefits

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
2 Photos
William Thompson, who was laid off from his job in July, hasn't received any unemployment insurance after filing claims every week, at his Salmon Creek home Tuesday morning.
William Thompson, who was laid off from his job in July, hasn't received any unemployment insurance after filing claims every week, at his Salmon Creek home Tuesday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When William Thompson was laid off from his sales job at Smack Plastics in Vancouver in July, he filed for unemployment benefits the next day.

He’s still waiting for them to arrive.

Since then, his savings have nearly dried up, and he’s cut back on food and traveling — all while waiting for unemployment insurance money that he’s not sure he’ll get, even though he files a claim every week.

“I’ve been frugal,” he said. “My savings are down to my last month. This is the last month I can pay mortgage. I’ve cut back with groceries in the house. I can’t afford to drive anywhere. I can’t visit my family members.”

Thompson, 60, is one of 26,777 in Washington who haven’t received unemployment insurance money as they wait for their cases to be resolved. That’s 2 percent of total applicants, according to the Washington Employment Security Department.

But even the roughly 10,000 Clark County residents who filed a continued claim two weeks ago are facing harder times: Their additional $600 federal insurance ended in August.

A new $300 federal check that began in Washington on Monday, and claimants could start to receive the money within a few days, said Nick Demerice, spokesman for the ESD.

The new program, called the Lost Wages Assistance Program, should backfill claims from early August, but they will only pay out about five weeks and are likely to run out by the end of September, according to Scott Bailey, regional economist for Southwest Washington.

“Six hundred dollars a week is a lot of money for folks,” Bailey said. “Doing that over four weeks is a difference between $2,400 and $1,200. If you’re on the edge, that difference puts you way over. It will affect people paying rent on time, food costs and the basics.”

Still, most households have been able to stay afloat: A survey from the Federal Reserve System in July reported that about 77 percent of adults said they were doing at least OK financially, which was up from 72 percent in April. That still leaves 23 percent of adults who said they were not doing OK financially. (A similar survey in October 2019 showed 79 percent were doing OK financially.)

“Although many people experienced disruptions to their work, the extraordinary governmental measures in response to the pandemic seemed to have eased families’ financial strain,” the report stated. “A substantial number of families received one or more forms of financial assistance from government programs or charitable organizations.”

But there are outliers like Thompson, who said he has applied for about 15 jobs every week he’s been laid off. He has been waiting for a callback from the ESD to resolve his case so he can get unemployment insurance, too.

Once his case is resolved, Thompson should receive regular state unemployment benefits retroactive to when he was laid off, but not the extra $600 he would have been qualified to receive, because that program has ended.

“The state of Washington tells me that if I’m receiving unemployment, I will receive the $300,” he said. “I’m really starting to question if I will get it.”

The ESD pays out unemployment insurance depending on how much each individual earns, but the federal money is an additional amount despite the claimant’s past wages.

Every Thursday, the state releases weekly claims data, which most recently show that the number of people filing their first unemployment insurance claims is up by 242 percent of levels pre-pandemic.

Even though the state and county job markets have for months seen a slow improvement, a group of people filing for extended benefits is slowly growing. The number of continued claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation, or PEUC, reached 1,653 in Clark County two weeks ago. On July 8, that number sat at 967 claims.

“It will be a key indicator to watch the PEUC to see if it increases,” Bailey said. “It’s a definite concern going forward.”

August employment

Clark County’s unemployment rate dipped back into the single digits, to 9.4 percent in August, according to ESD.

“That’s about a 40 percent bounce-back, and we still have a ways to go,” Bailey said.

The county gained 3,200 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis in August, and unadjusted employment rose by 1,700 to a total of 156,700 jobs, according to Bailey. Accommodations and food services also gained 600 jobs. The county also picked up 200 temporary census workers that will go away in another couple months once the census ends.

Leisure and hospitality continues to be most impacted industry, which had a 25 percent decline from a year ago, amounting to 4,300 jobs.

The manufacturing and construction industries each had a 10 percent loss in employment, and financial services had no change.

“I think we’re going to see slow improvement from here on out,” Bailey said.

As for any further stimulus money from the federal government after the end of September, it’s all in the air, Bailey said.

“It’s up to D.C.,” he said. “We’ll see.”