Business & workers weekly update, April 22, 2020

The Business & Workers update is a weekly newsletter providing news and information to help businesses and workers navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. The information is compiled by the state Economic Resiliency Team (ERT), part of the Joint Information Center at Camp Murray.

Governor announces Washington’s COVID-19 recovery plan

Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday laid out his vision for the eventual safe return to public life amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The governor in his address described the state’s approach for the gradual return to public life. Depending on health projections for the spread of the virus, some distancing restrictions may be in place for weeks or months to come, he said.

“It will look more like the turning of the dial than the flip of a switch,” Inslee said. “We’re going to take steps and then monitor to see whether they work or if we must continue to adapt.”

The governor’s plan has three overriding goals:

  1. Protect the Health and Safety of Washingtonians: Guided by data and science, we must continue to suppress the virus, protect our most vulnerable and treat those who are sick. We must ensure that COVID-19 infections and deaths are decreasing and that we have sufficient testing and contact identification in place before taking steps toward loosening restrictions.
  2. Facilitate a Safe Start and Transition to Economic Recovery: A healthy workforce is needed for a healthy economy. When it is safe, we will take measured steps to get people back to doing what they do best in a way that protects themselves and their communities’ health.
  3. Support All People and Communities: We will use an equity lens for recovery efforts to enhance people’s physical, emotional and financial well-being, with particular attention to those who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including communities of color, individuals experiencing homelessness, individuals with disabilities, as well as those experiencing unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity.

The governor’s plan emphasizes the necessity for community leaders from across the state to work together to provide guidance for a safe and sustainable recovery for all Washingtonians. The governor will appoint three leadership groups to advise on public health, economic recovery and social supports.

The governor said that if the data continues to indicate it’s safe to do so, the state may soon be able to consider how to modify restrictions around elective surgeries, construction and outdoor recreation.

“We are looking forward to making advances against this virus,” Inslee said. “Only science, data and informed reasoning can lift us out of this crisis.”

Unemployment insurance

The Employment Security Department (ESD) launched a redesigned online system Sunday to accommodate the expansion of unemployment benefits enabled by the Federal CARES Act.

ESD’s site is seeing unprecedented demand for services – up to 500,000 users per hour. Due to the high volume, the online system is experiencing performance issues. Information may load slowly and call wait times are long. The informational areas of the website are not impacted and can address questions people may have.

ESD expects to have about 1,000 people providing some form of customer service by the end of this week. That includes current and new ESD staff, staff from across state government, contract staff and even ESD retirees who are rising to the call of public service yet again.

In addition, the department’s teams are resolving online technical issues and the agency is seeing improvement. The rate of people able to file for benefits is increasing as volumes level out and the agency’s adjustments take effect. Tens of thousands of people have already filed successfully, and thousands continue to do so every hour.

“Tens of thousands of people have been able to apply for expanded benefits over the past few days. This will make a tremendous difference for these families. Yet, we know many people have been unable to access the system and submit their applications. We know how frustrating this is and are adapting in real-time to this massive influx of new claimants as best we can,” ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said. “We want to reassure everyone that those who are eligible will get their money and that they will be paid retroactive to their date of eligibility. This is a source of funding that won’t run out.”

As people continue to apply for benefits or file weekly claims, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The more people prepare before they apply, the smoother their process will be to get their benefits.
  • You can apply for benefits at any time. This is not a first-come-first-served program. There is no risk of funds running out.
  • Payments are retroactive to a worker’s eligibility date. Once you have successfully applied and backdated your start date, your first payment will be for all weeks for which you are eligible.
  • Weekly claims can be filed seven days a week. They can also be filed over the automated phone system: 800-318-6022
  • E-services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The busiest times tend to be in the morning. ESD recommends trying during off-hours.
  • If you are having difficulty filing your application, please visit ESD’s help page.
  • Due to the continued high demand for unemployment benefits, ESD is offering a webinar for customers to learn more about setting up a Secure Access Washington (SAW) account and submitting a claim for benefits online.
  • ESD also has created a tool kit for businesses and workers with the latest information and resources related to filing for unemployment benefits.

Update: U.S Small Business Administration (SBA) paycheck protection program

While U.S Small Business Administration (SBA) is currently unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or the Economic Injury Disaster Loan based on available appropriations funding, Congress is working to pass new funding measures. On April 21, the Senate reached a deal to provide $480 billion in new coronavirus relief with $310 billion going toward the SBAs PPP. The House is expected to vote as soon as April 23 on the funding bill.

Check the SBA website for updates.

The state Department of Commerce continues to support other SBA loan programs including SBA 7(a), 504 and microloans, on which the SBA is offering Debt Relief; or, SBA Express Bridge Loans.

Looking ahead

Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown said her agency is getting many questions from businesses about the future and what re-opening the economy will look like. “Recovery will be gradual and driven by health data for a safe start that keeps people and their communities healthy,” she said.

Brown encourages the business community to work with the state in developing guidelines for a safe return to economic activity.

“We know how badly businesses want to get back to work. Our state is partnering with main street businesses to develop practices and protocols, including testing and tracing, to ensure that happens safely. When the time comes we want to ignite the economy, not reignite the virus,” she said.

Business response center update

The state Economic Resiliency Team (ERT) Business Response Center has answered over 1,200 general business inquiries around financial help or other business assistance since coming online April 8.

This team of people from the Department of Commerce, the Joint Information Center and volunteers from throughout state government, are reviewing incoming questions and responding as quickly as possible.

The team is currently able to answer questions as quickly as they are received.

If you’re a business owner or operator with a question, ask your question here.

Stay up to date on what the Economic Resiliency Team is doing by signing up for the weekly Business and Workers Update.