Utah sees unemployment claims rise 29.5% in one week due to coronavirus, and worst likely still to come

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Good Grammar, a bar in Salt Lake City closed down due to health concerns, as seen on Monday, March 16, 2020. Initial jobless in Utah are signaling the state faces a significant surge in unemployment stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Utah officials say they are inundated with new unemployment claims as the state copes with the coronavirus pandemic.

And applicants face long wait times as they call with questions about both permanent and temporary layoffs and how to apply for benefits.

The crush of incoming calls was so large, a Utah Department of Workforce Services spokeswoman said Wednesday it was hampering the agency from processing actual jobless claims. State officials were urging workers whose jobs or wages have been disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak to instead apply online, at jobs.utah.gov/covid19.

The surge is only the start of a growing wave of unemployment hitting Utah — and every other state — judging from initial jobless claims for the week ending March 14.

That data, released Thursday by the federal government, came in well before the brunt of sweeping closures and government orders on social distancing took hold. It shows a jump in Utah claims of 29.5%.

State officials received 1,314 new unemployment claims that week, up from 1,015 the week before — part of a national surge of new claims over those five days.

Nationally, the country saw 281,000 new applications for unemployment benefits that same week, up 33% from the week before. Projections for ensuing weeks are already far higher.

The U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday the spike was “clearly attributable to impacts from the COVID-19 virus” and appeared to fall heaviest on states reporting new layoffs in hard-hit industries such as hospitality, food service, transportation and manufacturing.

The Trump administration, Utah’s business leaders and top economists are predicting millions of job losses nationwide this year as the U.S. economy has come to a virtual halt.

The Washington Post has reported that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned lawmakers the U.S. unemployment rate could spike to almost 20%, from its current level of 3.5%. Utah’s unemployment stood at a record low of 2.3% as recently as late January.

More up-to-date claim data from some states such as California, Texas and Washington signal an even bigger increase this week. Estimates from those and 12 other U.S. states suggest more than 629,899 weekly claims have come in already, with far more expected, according to a report in the New York Times.

Hospitality-centered Nevada saw a 181.5% explosion in its weekly claims for the week ending March 14, as hundreds of resorts, casinos, nightclubs, bars and eateries were temporarily shuttered.

To stem the spread of the virus, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday ordered all restaurants, taverns and food-service outlets to shut down dine-in options. Hotels and resorts in Utah, meanwhile, have seen precipitous declines in business in recent days, with the cancellations of all but a few public events.

Herbert has also banned groups of more than 10 people, recommended cancellation of non-essential travel and suggested that all Utahns aged 60 avoid social contact with others.

Park City resident Alyssa Brown, 26, is among the thousands of working Utahns with jobs that can only be performed in person who are now temporarily idled and facing financial distress.

The master esthetician who works at Basalt Day Spa in Salt Lake City has been out of work since the business closed as of late Sunday and canceled all appointments through the end of March.

“The nature of our job is being really close to people,” Brown said. “There’s just some people, whether it’s been a spa environment or a restaurant, where it’s just not possible to work from home.”

Brown and fellow estheticians work on commission, she said, and the closure leaves her with no pay. She is applying for Utah unemployment benefits, but said she finds the process confusing given that her employer said the layoffs for the day spa’s 18-member staff are temporary.

“It’s telling me I need to be constantly applying for jobs and all that [to qualify for benefits], which is not what any of us are looking for,” Brown said of the application process. “We just want to be back at the spa when it opens again.”

The Department of Workforce Services, which handles applications for both jobless benefits and food stamps, is urging Utahns facing temporary joblessness to apply for benefits, along with healthy workers who have been quarantined or those who’ve seen their workplaces closed down due to the virus.