Unemployment filings skyrocket; food services, hospitality workers among biggest increases

SEATTLE - As an invisible monster virus continues to wreak havoc across the country, Washington state saw a 843% increase in claims for unemployment benefits last week.

The state's Employment Security Department is also getting up to 25,000 calls per day. The normal volume is 2,000.

The stress and uncertainty may not be obvious from afar, but navigating a whole new world alone at home for Shandra Sgobba is hard.

“I have never filed unemployment. Most of my friends, it's the same way; we’ve always worked our butts off,” Sgobba said.

Sgobba has always been proud of the hustle working multiple jobs as a waitress at Seattle's Manolin and a caterer at McCaw Hall, to name a few of her jobs.

“To talk to anyone right now in this industry is really scary,” Sgobba said.

Unemployment filings are up by more than 1000% for people in the food services industry and those working in hospitality.

Sgobba says she and many of her friends have tried for days to file for benefits on the Employment Security Department’s website.

“It’s incredibly confusing and frustrating. If you call you’re on hold for days,” Sgobba said.

At first a software glitch denied benefits to Sgobba and many others in error. ESD says they are contacting all of those people to alert them of the mistake. The state’s computer system had not caught up with policy changes enacted because of COVID-19.

As of Thursday, the department says there should be no more glitches on the website.

Before filing, the state is asking that you read the details on the website and also to subscribe to their COVID-19 action alerts from the homepage.

“Our software has caught up, what we are dealing with is a huge volume, what we recommend is that folks go to the website. We have a lot of information that we are regularly updating,” Commissioner of Employment Security Department Suzi Levine said.

Q13 FOX has been contacted by some people who say they have tried repeatedly to apply only to get a message saying the site can’t verify the information they entered.

ESD says there are number of reasons why this is happening. One of the reasons could be that the personal information the applicant is providing is not matching the information given by their employer. Unfortunately those applicants need to call the center at 1800-318-6022.

But one hair salon employee who reached out to Q13 FOX says she’s called about 100 times over the last week but have not been able to talk to anyone.

In Sgobba’s case she finally got an approval letter in the mail after initially being denied by the Standby program. Standby is available for businesses that have temporarily shut down. Business owners are not eligible for Standby but their workers are.

Despite the approval letter, Sgobba is still concerned because she says others with the same approval have not received any money in more than two weeks.

In cases like that, it’s possible there was a missed step.

After you are approved by ESD you have to go back and file weekly claims to get your benefits.

You can do that here.

Levine says after that step it should take 7 to 10 days to get your benefits and usually you will only receive about 50% of your income.

Part time employees who work multiple jobs only have to apply once and list all the jobs you've worked. Once the state verifies the information with your employers you will get compensated based on the total reported income.

Levine acknowledges that the process can be complex, especially since many have never filed before.

“We are going to get through this together and to meet this unprecedented demand we are getting better over time,” Levine said.

Levine also says many people are trying to apply for unemployment benefits when they are not eligible. To qualify, you would have had to work 680 hours in 12 months at one or more places.

As Sgobba waits for her benefits, she is staying hopeful that better days are ahead.

“Everyone is freaking out right now, everyone,” Sgobba said.

Levine says one hope moving forward is that Congress any day now could expand benefits to people who normally would not qualify. For example, business owners, gig workers and those self-employed are not eligible to apply for any unemployment benefits.