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If you thought the 2008 Great Recession came on suddenly, that was a slow walk compared to the coronavirus’ overnight body blow to Utah’s economy.
“This is an immediate slam-dunk,” said Mark Knold, chief economist at the state Department of Workforce Service, an agency now at the center of the state’s response to COVID-19’s financial hit.
Thousands of Utah workers and hundreds of businesses are already desperately sending up red flags as layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts mount. Government officials and the private sector are announcing new emergency plans almost daily in a bid to lessen the long-term economic effects.
Many have questions about how they can get help and what happens next, with so many aspects of life upended by contagion, people living apart and commerce slowing or at standstill.
Knold and some of Utah’s top leaders say the state enters this crisis as one of the strongest economies in the country.
And Gov. Gary Herbert said he remained “very optimistic,” especially given the state’s cultural focus on emergency preparedness and mutual support as well as the way residents and businesses have responded so far.
“This economic downturn is just another difficult challenge we’re going to address and deal with and triumph,” the governor said Friday as he urged Utahns to adapt and innovate.
As today’s picture changes hourly, here’s a look at a few pressing economic questions.
My boss sent me home for social distancing, and I’ve got no money coming in. What are my options?
You might be keeping at least six feet or more away from all but loved ones, but you’re not alone out there.
Workers in up to 15% of the state’s economy have been idled in recent weeks by health orders and government recommendations for people to stay apart to avoid transmitting COVID-19.
Utah’s heaviest-hit industries for job losses right now appear to be hospitality, entertainment, hotels and tourism, but the impacts are quickly fanning out into retail, services and other key sectors.
The short answer is, if you’re not sick, been at your job for at least 15 months and you’re able to work, you should apply for state unemployment benefits — even if your employer is keeping your job open for you for when the crisis passes.
Go online, starting at jobs.utah.gov/covid19 — but for now, don’t call in to Utah’s Department of Workforce Services if you can avoid it.
Workforce Services phone banks were so overwhelmed this week, officials had to divert staff from other areas to handle the calls and frantically sought to steer the public to online application forms. The department has already seen unemployment claims jump in volume by nearly a third the week before — just as social distancing and virus alarm were taking hold.
The week ending Friday will no doubt see unemployment claims rise even higher, likely by the thousands, especially judging from early estimates on upcoming claims from 15 U.S. states. The head of Utah’s unemployment insurance division vowed Friday the agency is working diligently and is committed to processing at least 87% of Utah’s new applications within 21 days.
Not surprisingly, officials are telling folks to be patient.
But I didn’t get laid off. Work just stopped for a while. Should I apply, too?
You’ll likely be considered what’s called “job attached” but still be eligible to get a substantial portion of your salary in benefits for up to 12 weeks, depending on how all this goes. And in that circumstance, Workforce Services is saying the state will waive its usual requirement that aid recipients continue to look for a job.
Given how fluid the situation is, the department is putting a lot of effort into pushing the latest information onto its website, particularly its FAQ areas, which are updated almost daily.
The good news is Utah’s unemployment compensation trust fund holds more than $1 billion, the seventh most solvent in the country. There’s plenty of money right now to take care of those affected.
And that’s without any of the new federal aid now being passed by Congress for the explosion of unemployment benefits and other disaster aid expected across the country.
“We can weather the storm with our trust fund,” Workforce Services Executive Director Jon Pierpont said late Thursday. “We feel confident that we’ll have the funds available as people continue to find ways to get back in the labor market.”
I own a business and had to shut down. Is there help for me?
For months, roughly one Utah business sought advice each week from the state’s Rapid Response team for dealing with impending layoffs. Last week, the team got more than 100 calls, mostly from small businesses in the services sector.
If you’re an employer facing layoffs or closing, this program offers immediate help.
The Salt Lake Chamber is representing the needs of Utah’s businesses in the state’s crisis response and its leader is a member of the state’s top task force fighting the crisis. Right now, the task force website — coronavirus.utah.gov/business — has information on three major aid programs already emerging.
As of a declaration Monday, the U.S. Small Business Administration is offering “economic injury disaster loans” of up to $2 million at low interest rates to small businesses, nonprofits and farming cooperatives. Cash from the loans can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills caused by the COVID-19 disaster since Jan. 31.
Loan rates are 3.75% for businesses and 2.75% for private organizations, the SBA says. More information on that at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.
Salt Lake City has stopgap funding in the meantime, with loans of up to $20,000 available at 0% interest for businesses within city limits. That window is closing fast, though, with applications accepted through midnight Monday. Information is at slc.gov/ed/elploan/.
The first infusion of federal aid is coming, too, under what’s called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. In addition to paying leave benefits for some workers, expanding food assistance and helping employers pay sick leave, it includes additional assistance for small and medium businesses. The chamber’s site has information on that too.
What about help with my mortgage, rent or the tax bill coming due next month?
Two of the country’s largest home lenders — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — have been ordered to suspend foreclosures and evictions for at least 60 days. That covers a substantial portion of home loans in Utah.
The order followed an offered payment forbearance by the two government-backed lenders, letting borrowers hit by the COVID-19 crisis delay their mortgage payments for up to 12 months.
The Utah Banking Association has said its members are also ready with other plans for deferring mortgage payments, modifying loans and offering relief on some fees — but those interested should contact their banks or mortgage service companies right away.
Relief for renters and landlords is still taking shape. Housing advocates are asking state leaders to explore a temporary moratorium on evictions for rent lapses due to COVID-19, as well a temporary halt on tax liens on residential properties and utility shut-offs.
And on Friday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the Trump administration will delay the April 15 income tax filing date to July 15, letting “all taxpayers and businesses have this additional time to file and make payments without interest or penalties.” Utah is following suit with state taxes.