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A record high of 19,591 Utahns filed for unemployment benefits last week as the state coped with waves of layoffs and a sweeping economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus.
Those new jobless claims for the Beehive State nearly quadrupled a prior weekly high set during the Great Recession and were part of 3.3 million Americans seeking unemployment aid across the country that same week.
The national number, which dwarfed the nearly 282,000 claims reported the prior week, also broke records going back to 1982 in the latest indication of widespread economic damage from the COVID-19 crisis.
All states saw unemployment claims rise in the latest report, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, with California, New Jersey, Washington and Florida seeing some of the biggest jumps.
The news heightened attention on a historically large, $2 trillion stimulus bill before Congress and its prospect for slowing the economy’s downward plunge. That bill includes a big boost in unemployment benefits to be paid over the next four months.
Benefits recipients in Utah typically receive between 40% and 50% of the salary they earned when laid off — up to a cap of $580 weekly — for a maximum of 26 weeks under current law. It usually takes two or three weeks to start getting that payment, once applicants are deemed eligible.
State officials have said Utah will waive its requirement that recipients continue to search for work in cases where they’ve been laid off temporarily.
The Senate-approved stimulus package now up for House approval on Friday, meanwhile, would boost those weekly unemployment insurance benefits by an additional $600 per week.
Other parts of the package would add 13 additional weeks of benefits beyond the six months of jobless aid that Utah and many other states currently offer.
The $2 trillion bill also extends those benefits, for the first time, to so-called “gig workers” and others laid off from jobs not officially listed on a company payroll.
Utah’s claims leapt 1,391% for the week ending March 21 compared with the week before, which saw filings rise by 29.5%. Utah Department of Workforce Services previously reported the spike had briefly slowed the application process and required them to shift staff to handle new claims.
Officials continued to urge Utahns needing help to apply online to avoid clogging phone banks and diverting state workers from processing actual claims.
The hardest hit sectors in Utah were in the services industries, particularly hospitality and food services, as thousands of restaurants, bars, hotels and public events were shuttered in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus. Also hit hard were office and administrative jobs.
Job losses focused on the Beehive State’s more urbanized areas, including Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber and Washington counties.
But also among the big job losers was relatively less-populous Summit County, where tourism plays an outsized role in commerce. After closing dine-in services at the county’s restaurants and food-service sites the week prior, officials there have now announced a shelter-in-place order effective Friday at midnight.
Restaurants, taverns and food-service establishments statewide were ordered March 16 to close all dine-in operations in a move Gov. Gary Herbert and health officials said was meant to limit the spread of coronavirus. The order left open curbside, drive-thru, pick up and delivery operations.
Kevin Burt, director of the state’s unemployment insurance division said Thursday claims had increased “significantly, and also quickly,” likening its pace to a sudden increase associated with the October 2013 federal government shut down, though that was far smaller.
And whereas job losses in the Great Recession were “like high tide coming in,” Department of Workforce Services Chief Economist Mark Knold said last week, “this is a bit of tsunami that’s right there and hitting large and hard.”
Burt said Thursday that many of the Utahns’ showing up in the latest numbers remained connected to employers who were keeping their jobs open while the outbreak plays out.
“It will be interesting to see how long this volume continues,” he said. “That will determine whether it is more than just a temporary pause on the economy.”
Burt confirmed that applications appeared to be coming in at a similarly high pace this week, although those final totals won’t be released until April 2.
As layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts mount, some economists predict the nation’s unemployment rate could approach 13% by May. By comparison, the peak jobless rate during the Great Recession, which ended in 2009, was 10%.
Utah’s unemployment rate — which hovered at a historic low 2.3% just a few months ago — appeared almost sure to reach at least into the low double digits.
Herbert’s newly published plan for healing the state’s economy from the COVID-19 outbreak notes that the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which pays for Utahns’ jobless benefits, is at record highs.
Estimated to have a balance of $1.17 billion for this fiscal year, the fund paid out $3.7 million last week to out-of-work and furloughed residents. Burt said the account has plenty of money for now to help Utahns weather the crisis.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.