FILE - Washington weekly unemployment claim form

(The Center Square) – Thousands of Washingtonians are filing for unemployment benefits as the pandemic continues, but starting next month, they'll have to look for a job to keep them.

Starting July 4, jobless claimants living in Washington must search for work and document up to three approved job search activities every week to keep claiming benefits. Those can include interviews, applications and job fairs. The state's Employment Security Department (ESD) announced the change that would affect 286,146 Washingtonians filing claims at the time.

The development reverses some of the changes to unemployment insurance that Congress passed in 2020 with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). Those changes included paying claimants an extra $300 per week on top of their state benefits. That boosted weekly payouts in Washington to $655.22 on average, the ESD reports. PUA also waived the rule requiring workers to document their job hunt to keep claiming benefits. Many Washingtonians are worried their luck will not turn around later this summer.

Mercedes Kim, a former behavior technician living in Bellingham, said they are disappointed with the news. Living with various chronic conditions, Kim states they are limited with what jobs they can do with a baby on the way and a spouse working full-time.

"Everyone's so eager for everything to 'return to normal,'" Kim said. "I don't think 'normal' was working, especially for those of us in the lower socioeconomic brackets."

In April, unemployment rates in Washington stood at 5.5% or almost two points above the 3.8% unemployment rate in the weeks before Gov. Jay Inslee's stay-at-home order and shutdown of the economy in February 2020. That's below the national average of 5.8%. Inslee has set his sights on reopening the state in late June should it see 70% vaccination rates by then. Many Washingtonians say they have waited for too long.

Hiedi Hambly, an Uber driver and a single mom of four children from Spokane, worries what it will mean for high-risk individuals like herself who left the job market due to COVID. Hambly is concerned that work opportunities have passed her by since 2020. She's also ineligible for the COVID vaccines due to allergies.

"We've been home for over a year and drivers in my area aren't making near what I was when I was driving," Hambly said. "Because of my health I'm limited to what I can do too."

Hiring in Washington has slowed down since spring. The ESD reported two weeks ago that the state added 11,200 jobs in April, less than half the 28,100 it added in March and almost a third of the 29,600 it gained in February. 

Hannaneel Perez, a self-employed spiritual therapist and former veterinary technician, says her industry is not going back to normal even if the state does. Perez says the PUA was why she was able to pay her rent for the past 15 months. She is not sure if that will be true in the next 15 months.

"This feels like a gut punch when I'm already doing my best to get back my clients," Perez said. "My clients don't have the money they once did either."

Last week, out-of-work Washingtonians filed 8,868 new claims or about a 12.1% decrease from the prior week, the ESD reports. New jobless claims fell 2.3% to 376,000 nationwide or the lowest level since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the U.S. Labor Department reports. 

Many Washingtonians are struggling to get help getting their claims through the ESD. Last week, the department reported an average of 9,500 claimants were waiting three weeks or longer for payment. In May, that number was 10,000. Average hold times at the ESD help desk are about 40 minutes, the ESD reports. Some claimants are waiting even longer.

Some Washingtonians have claimed on social media that calling Inslee's office has gotten their claims through much faster. 

Unemployment benefits, which typically expire after 26 weeks, were extended by the federal government through September, the date Washington has chosen to cut them. The state's eviction moratorium will expire by the end of June instead of a new executive order from Inslee.

"I'd rather not spend precious energy and hours looking for a job because there's a greater push on the unemployed to bring back normalcy," Perez said. "Things are not normal and likely won't be."