Though still high, Utah’s unemployment claims slowed last week as federal aid starts to kick in

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Orangetheory Fitness in Salt Lake City, temporarily closed on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

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Pandemic-related job losses in Utah slowed again last week, down significantly from their highs in early April but still hefty compared with past recessions.

The 11,830 Utahns who sought unemployment benefits the week ending April 25 have pushed the Beehive State’s total to at least 150,000 or more since the outbreak began.

Those idled employees are part of a staggering total of 30.3 million Americans now thrown out of work by the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday. That’s after another 3.8 million Americans applied for benefits last week.

The nation’s unemployment rate stands somewhere above 12.4%, the Labor Department said — a new milestone some seven weeks after the crisis and a series of stay-at-home orders first began triggering widespread layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.

The way those jobs losses have spread in Utah’s economy since mid-March shows a potential deepening of the pandemic’s impact, while there are positive signs as well.

Office and sales workers now lead the pack for jobless claims in Utah, an indication that lagging commercial activity that first hit restaurants, entertainment sectors and tourist-driven companies is gradually reaching other industries.

Even as Utah and other states begin lifting some public-health restrictions, one national expert predicted further waves of unemployment due to decreased consumer and business spending.

“As states attempt to reopen businesses at half capacity and people shun going out until they feel safe, many more businesses will find that financially, layoffs are the next step in survival," said Andrew Challenger with Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employment consulting firm based in Chicago.

But there is also early evidence that almost $3 billion in federal relief loans for Utah’s small businesses owners under the Paycheck Protection Program could be having an initial effect.

Roughly 3,100 Utahns have withdrawn their unemployment claims in the past two weeks, with some of them called back to their jobs thanks to PPP money, though many of them at reduced hours.

“We are encouraged to hear from both employers and employees that they are beginning to return to work,” Jon Pierpont, executive director of the state Department of Workforce Services, said in a statement.

A significant share of the trillions in federal relief money passed by Congress is also reaching Utah’s sidelined workers directly, in the form of $600 stipends added to their weekly state unemployment benefits.

Utah added $40.4 million in federal stipend money last week on top of the $17 million it paid out in state benefits, for a total of $82 million in stimulus payments to sidelined workers since those funds began to flow.

New relief is also now set to reach many self-employed and contract workers in Utah for the first time, the Department of Workforce Services reported Thursday. Numbers show more than 14,000 of them have now filed with the state for benefits in the past two weeks, under the federal stimulus package’s newly created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Unemployment Insurance Division Director Kevin Burt said Thursday that last week’s decline in claims — the third consecutive week they’ve gone down since a peak of nearly 33,000 filings the week ending April 4 — was giving state workers a chance to catch up on processing claims.

But Burt said the state was still estimating a 21-day to 30-day delay in getting benefits sent to qualified recipients after they first apply.