Faced with unprecedented call volumes from people applying for unemployment benefits, the Washington State Employment Security Department today announced that its call centers will now be open on Saturday mornings beginning this week.
Applicants now may call on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon in addition to the normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekday schedule.
A record 90,331 people applied for regular unemployment benefits in December 2008, an increase of about 75 percent over December 2007. Nearly 130,000 Washingtonians currently are receiving unemployment benefits, about 92 percent more than a year ago.
Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee said that expanding call hours is just the latest move by the department to handle the rapidly growing workload created by the nation's economic recession.
"We are hiring and training new staff as fast as we can and exploring every option to process unemployment claims faster," Lee said.
In less than a year, Employment Security has nearly doubled its intake agents, with another 27 newly trained agents being added in February and another 50 in April. The number of employees who investigate and make decisions about complicated and disputed unemployment claims also has increased, by more than 20 percent.
Due to complicated eligibility and documentation requirements for unemployment claims, it takes six weeks of formal classroom instruction to train a new intake agent, followed by several months of close mentoring. It takes considerably more training and experience to "adjudicate" complicated claims.
"Laid-off workers need their benefits as quickly as possible, but we want to make accurate decisions so they aren't forced to repay benefits they shouldn't have received," Lee said.
In addition to adding staff, Employment Security has shifted paperwork to other staff so the intake agents can spend more time on the phones, increased efforts to schedule mass-application sessions with workers involved in large layoffs, and launched a project to improve the Web-based application system. Additional staffing and technology solutions also are being researched.
Lee said there are some things claimants can do to avoid delays and reduce the number of phone calls.
File your initial unemployment claim online at esd.wa.gov. Most individuals with employment only in Washington within the past two years should be able to use this method.
When calling the hotline (800-318-6022), use a landline rather than a cell phone, because there will usually be a wait time that could use up cell-phone minutes. And don't hang up and redial, because it puts the caller back at the end of the line.
Provide complete and accurate information in your application, including your Social Security number; the name and address of all of your employers during the last two years, regardless of how long you worked there; the dates you worked for all of your employers during the last two years; and the reason you became unemployed.
File weekly claims on Monday through Thursday, avoiding the Sunday rush that sometimes clogs the automated phone system. Weekly claims also may be filed online at esd.wa.gov for most individuals who have had only one employer in the past two years.
Use the automated features on the phone system (800-318-6022) on Monday through Thursday evenings for many routine matters, after the "live" calls are done for the day. Claimants can file a weekly claim (option 1), reopen an existing claim (option 2), find out if their check was processed (option 3), provide an address change (option 4), and obtain information about a benefit overpayment (option 6) without speaking to a live agent.
Lee also urged laid-off workers to visit their local WorkSource office to seek help assessing their skills, looking for work and exploring retraining options.
Employment Security Web site: www.esd.wa.gov
WorkSource Web site: www.go2worksource.com