File early: Unemployment call centers prepare for benefit increases and eliminate Saturday hours

If you’re one of the 190,000 Washingtonians currently receiving unemployment benefits, you should file your claim early this week, say officials from the Employment Security Department.

Congress and the state legislature each approved temporary increases in weekly unemployment benefits as part of economic stimulus efforts. The increases will start showing up in benefit checks beginning May 11.

To implement the changes, telephone and Web access for filing weekly unemployment claims on active accounts will close at noon on Friday, May 8, and will reopen at midnight on Saturday.

Weekly claims for April 26-May 2 should be filed before noon on May 8. Anyone who misses filing a weekly claim should call the unemployment hotline (800-318-6022) during the week of May 11-15 for assistance.

People filing new unemployment applications are encouraged to file any time by visiting www.esd.wa.gov, as the Web application will not be affected by the temporary shutdown. New claims also can be filed via the unemployment hotline all day on Friday but not on Saturday.

The Internet and phone claims systems will be fully functioning again on Monday, May 11.

That’s not the only change pending at the call centers.

Employment Security has decided to immediately suspend Saturday operations at its unemployment call centers because wait times have dropped significantly.

The department opened its unemployment call centers on Saturdays beginning in February to give unemployed workers more access to claims agents. At the time, people calling on weekdays had to wait on hold up to an hour to reach an agent, and thousands had to dial repeatedly to get past the busy signal.

Since then, a combination of additional staff, technology improvements and a decline in the number of new claims being filed each month has brought the average wait time down to less than 10 minutes during the standard work week. People who call after 3 p.m. and on Thursday and Fridays typically get through in less than two minutes.

“Despite having the most unemployment claimants in the state’s history and a rising unemployment rate, we are now serving callers faster than we were last summer,” said Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee. “Our staff has logged thousands of hours of overtime to get us here, and it’s paying off.”

In December 2008, a record 90,331 people applied for regular unemployment benefits, an increase of about 75 percent over the previous year. All told, about 190,000 Washington residents are now receiving benefits, more than twice as many as a year ago.


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