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Jobless Claims in the Washington Food Industry Continue Steady 2021 Decline

But unemployment overall is still high, and the restaurant landscape continues to be precarious

An unemployment claims form sits next to a pen and a computer keyboard.
Unemployment claims in Washington have fallen in early 2021, but remain high overall.

There are some signs that the restaurant jobs picture in Washington is improving. According to data recently released from the state’s Unemployment Security Department (USD), jobless claims have continued to steadily decline in 2021 across many sectors, including the hospitality industry. The “accommodation and food service” category saw 1,249 initial unemployment claims in the week ending February compared to claims in the first week of January compared to 2,706 in the first week of January. The numbers mirrored a similar rate of decline in King County (over 600 “food service” unemployment claims the first week of January versus less than 300 most recently).

But the numbers are still high overall, more than double what they were in the same week last year. And the current data is just a snapshot in a precarious time. Though the entire state has reopened for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity and COVID-19 cases have been dropping in recent weeks, the pandemic continues to be an ever-present threat. Local health officials have warned of new variants that are more contagious and potentially more lethal. If metrics related to the coronavirus spike again in the area, Seattle restaurants could be forced to close once more.

It’s also unclear whether the USD has resolved any of its recent issues related to unemployment claims. In December, Washington service workers penned an open letter that, in part, highlighted some of the problems many experienced getting unemployment checks in 2020. According to the declaration, those who lost their jobs during the pandemic were still owed payment months later, and some had given up trying.

Though the USD said the outstanding unemployment claims represented only a small percentage of those filing, the number still represented 27,000 workers, and one recent Crosscut report said the average wait time to resolve claims had been more than three times as long as usual. That’s not to mention the data breach which may have exposed personal information of 1.6 Washingtonians who filed for unemployment in 2020 (state auditor Pat McCarthy blamed the breach on a third-party software provider and said her office is “committed to doing everything we can to mitigate the harm caused”).

On a more positive front, there has recently been some legislative action aimed at mitigating some of the impacts of unemployment in general. Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed a bill that promises to save small businesses about $920 million in unemployment insurance taxes for 2021 and $1.7 billion total over the next five years. The bill also has an amendment to raise the minimum weekly unemployment benefit for lower-wage workers and allows those who need to quit their jobs during future public health emergencies access to unemployment benefits. In addition, there’s a $2.2 billion state relief package in the works, which aims to help workers, homeowners, renters, and small businesses.

But everything will likely depend on getting COVID under better control, with most eyes on Washington’s vaccination effort, one that still leaves the majority of area restaurant workers under a certain age uncertain on where they stand. While things may be getting a little better jobs-wise recently, there’s a long way to go before people in the restaurant industry will feel secure.