Utah’s unemployment sets a new record as the coronavirus crisis impacts workers nationwide

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Unoccupied chairs at Sequel Salon in Salt Lake City during a temporary closure due to the coronavirus. The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that nearly 6.6 million Americans had sought unemployment benefits the week prior, a U.S. record attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Utah’s unemployment numbers jumped even further into uncharted territory Thursday as the economic disaster kicked off by the coronavirus deepened.

A new federal report shows that 28,560 residents filed jobless claims last week, compared to 19,690 the week before, which was already quadruple the weekly record set during the Great Recession.

Those Utahns seeking state unemployment help were among a staggering 6.6 million Americans who did the same for the week ending March 28 — just shy of double the number who reported being thrown out of work the previous week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported.

That national jobless number was the highest in U.S. history for a single week, the department said, with all states seeing increases and all but a few attributing their new unemployment directly to COVID-19.

No surge in Utah or American jobless claims has ever come on this suddenly. About 50,000 workers in the state — almost 6% of Utah’s total workforce — and 10 million nationwide have been abruptly sidelined in a few short weeks, with the effects of social distancing and stay-at-home orders meant to contain the virus.

James Wood, a senior economist at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said the rapid jolt appears greater than those of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 free fall triggering the Great Recession and even those of the 1929 Great Depression or World War II.

“I don’t think anybody alive now," Wood said, “has seen anything as sudden and severe with the economy as we’ve experienced in the last 45 days.”

He predicted the share of Utah’s workforce left jobless by the outbreak could rise as high as 10% in the coming weeks.

Kevin Burt, the state official over Utah’s unemployment system, said it has now received as many claims in the past two weeks as it did in all of 2019, underscoring the state’s economic decline from leading the nation in job growth less than a month ago.

Utah appears to have plenty of money to pay those new claims but, given the historic demand for benefits, Burt said "there will be some disruption in our normal service levels.”

Workers in accommodation and food-service industries remained the hardest hit, both in Utah and the rest of the country, as countless restaurants, bars, hotels, shopping centers and public events have shut down amid the outbreak.

But more than three weeks into this historic pandemic and its economic effects, job losses are spreading quickly to other sectors, data suggests. Retail, office and administrative jobs are now tumbling, too.

As many as 90% of jobless applicants over those weeks are deemed “job attached,” one state official said, meaning they’ve experienced temporary furloughs or pay cuts — at least for now — as opposed to permanent layoffs.

Nearly two of every five new Utah jobless claims last week came from Salt Lake County residents, the state reported. Losses overall appeared centered on the Wasatch Front, with Utah, Davis, Weber and Washington counties also posting big numbers.

Nationally, top states for unemployment claims were in the manufacturing powerhouses of Pennsylvania and Ohio, along with Massachusetts, Texas and California, the Labor Department report. Wyoming saw the fewest losses for the week, but even its claims were up dramatically, with 4,675 workers seeking help.

Utah officials have repeatedly sought to reassure the public that the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund, with just short of $1 billion on hand, has ample cash to cover the crisis. In contrast, that fund dropped precipitously as the 2008 recession dragged on, forcing state officials at one point to consider seeking federal help to supplement it.

Benefits paid out to Utah’s jobless have recently been beefed up significantly by the new federal stimulus law aimed at bolstering health care resources and buffering the coronavirus’ blow to the U.S economy.

Where state unemployment checks typically replaced between 40% and 50% of a displaced worker’s usual wage before, there will be another $600 a week thrown on top — thanks to a recently passed federal package to address some of COVID-19’s health and economic impacts.

Those jobless benefits will last up to 13 weeks longer, too, depending on how long the U.S. economic downturn endures. The federal relief package also offers checks to Utah’s self-employed as well as contract and so-called gig workers who otherwise wouldn’t qualify.

Still, the new unemployment money may take time to reach Utah, officials noted, as the state moves to align its jobless programs with portions of the nearly $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

“We recognize this is a critical need for individuals at this time," Burt said in a statement, “and are working to make them available as soon as possible.”

Workers who are already in line for jobless benefits don’t need to reapply to get the new relief, Burt said. But Utah has never before covered self-employed workers thrown out of work, he noted, and the state Department of Workforce Services currently lacks a way for them to apply for the newly created aid.

Department officials previously have vowed to process the crush of new jobless claims in three weeks or less — although the state is having to divert employees from other duties to help work through new applications.

Burt said Thursday that processing time is now closer to 30 days.

And in reaction to periodic yet massive overloads to state phone lines in recent weeks, he and other state officials also continue to urge the unemployed to go online, at jobs.utah.gov, to file their claims.

Burt also reminded Utahns who’ve already applied that they need to keep renewing their claims online each week to remain eligible.