Utah’s unemployment claims continue to surge as self-employed and gig workers are added

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chico's, a store in Salt Lake City, temporarily closed on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. A total of 126,422 Utah residents have now told the government they’ve been idled as of mid-March, when the coronavirus first began roiling the economy.

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Job losses continued in Utah at a high clip last week, with at least another 19,751 residents seeking typical unemployment aid and more than 7,026 self-employed and gig workers applying for new benefits for the first time in state history.

A total of 133,448 Utah workers have now told the government they’ve been idled since mid-March, when the coronavirus first began roiling the economy. Those workers are among at least 26.4 million Americans laid off, furloughed or facing pay cuts, the U.S. Department of Labor revealed Thursday.

As it has nationally, the five-week surge in jobless claims in the Beehive State has slowed since the week ending April 4, when they leapt above 33,000, but weekly filings are still at least three times above peaks reached during the Great Recession.

Job sectors seeing the highest share of claims last week were office and administrative support, sales and related jobs, and food preparation and serving — further evidence the economic impact of the coronavirus has widened from its initial hit on restaurants, bars, public events and other hospitality venues closed by public health and stay-at-home orders.

Still, as the number of filings ratcheted down slightly for a second week, officials processing that mountain of claims at the state Department of Workforce Services said Utah’s unemployment system continued to operate “effectively and efficiently” — even as it paid out a historic $60 million in weekly benefits.

“We are encouraged to see another decrease in new claims filed, though we continue to receive them at record levels,” the state’s Unemployment Insurance Division director, Kevin Burt, said Thursday in a statement.

An astonishing $42 million of that total aid flowed to jobless Utahns not from the state but as part of the $600 stipend now being added to weekly unemployment checks and direct deposits through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The stipend effectively doubles the maximum weekly benefit usually paid out under Utah’s system alone, which typically matches up to roughly 50% of an applicant’s pre-job-loss income, with an overall cap at $580 per week. The average state benefit — before CARES — was $430 per week.

And, as of last week, jobless claims in Utah also now include the self-employed, independent contractors and so-called gig workers, under another CARES program meant to give them benefits for the first time. The state reported Thursday that 7,062 of those workers had filed last week for CARES’ Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, on top of regular claims.

Initial numbers on total unemployment in Utah now exceed 10% of the state’s pre-downturn workforce, dwarfing the jobless rate in February, when the pandemic was just reaching the U.S., when it stood at a record low of 2.5%.

But, unique to this crisis, a vast majority of Utah workers sidelined by COVID-19 and social distancing measures have told the state they’ve been sent home only temporarily and could be called back to work when commercial activity resumes.