It's been more than six months since the number of new unemployment-benefits applications began soaring in Washington State. In September of last year, when the current economic implosion began, there were about 41,000 new claims. In October, the monthly new-claims number was up to about 55,000. The November total: 66,000. The December total: more than 90,000.
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We're now in February, with the layoff spree continuing in Washington and around the country, and yet the unemployment- benefits call center run by the state's Employment Security Department remains overwhelmed.
"It's like Russian roulette trying to talk to a human being over there," wrote Schuyler Bagwell, who was laid off from Seattle's Community Court in October, in an e-mail to The Stranger. Another person, an unemployed construction worker who didn't want his name published, dared "just one person in the media to try to call that fucking phone number only to have the system hang up on you." When The Stranger took up the challenge and called the number on February 5, we received this apparently typical automated response: "Thank you for calling. Currently we are experiencing a high number of calls. Please try your call again later."
This is, of course, maddening to any unemployed person seeking to start up—or sort out—his or her state benefits, and it's frustrating for state legislators, too. After all, the state has plenty of money in its unemployment trust fund (which, at $4 billion, is the largest in the country), and unemployment payments are essentially an economic stimulus, so it's better for everyone for the office to get the payments out there fast.
"It sounds like [the Employment Security Department] screwed up," said state senate majority leader Lisa Brown (D-3). "I think that's pretty clear."
Mark Varadian, spokesman for the Employment Security Department, said he's frustrated, too, but trotted out the "How could we have known?" line of defense.
"Nobody really anticipated the degree and the speed by which the economy melted down in September and early fall," Varadian told The Stranger. "It was relatively flat all year, and then it just spiked."
But why couldn't Varadian's agency, once the meltdown began and the predictions became dire, staff up in advance of the following grim months of this recession? The answer is complicated, relating to the fact that most of the call center's funding comes from the federal government, which Varadian says doesn't increase payments for staffing until after an agency can show its current staff is overwhelmed. But the agency also gets some money from the state, and it's possible to essentially borrow from the state based on a forecast of increased call volumes, then pay the state back when the federal government finally gets around to noticing more money is needed. The key there: a good forecast.
Obviously, the state lacked that. But once the economy started collapsing, and unemployment claims started spiking, it should still have been pretty easy to figure out that a call center staffed by just over 100 people (as Washington's was for much of last year) wasn't going to be robust enough.
Simple, back-of-the-napkin calculations make the point. The state knows that the average call to set up a new unemployment claim takes 15 minutes. If just three quarters of the 55,000 people who filed new claims in October had done it through the call center, it would have taken 100 call-center employees about two and half straight weeks, working only on new unemployment claims, to process it all. The call center, it’s worth noting, doesn’t work only on new unemployment claims—there are backlogged old claims, disaster relief claims, federal emergency unemployment compensation claims, and disputed current claims to be handled too.
Of course, not everyone does their unemployment benefits business over the phone; the state has a web site where people can accomplish many of the same things, though there are complaints about that as well. Still, the math is not yet on the state’s side. Call-center staffing increased to about 200 employees as of January, and the office was opened for additional Saturday-morning hours, but Varadian still needs more people. They're coming—later this month and in March.
Until then, is the solution for the unemployed to try to get media attention for their individual cases, as Bagwell has done, successfully planting his story on KING 5 News and The Stranger's blog? "Yeah, we saw that," Varadian said of Bagwell's media appearances. Varadian can't discuss particular cases, but assures that this isn't a good strategy. "It won't get you to the front of the line. We're taking the calls as fast as we can."