Utah unemployment claims show 'encouraging’ drop

Weekly unemployment claims in Utah inched down again last week from pandemic highs reached in early April, with nearly 7,135 residents filing claims.

The Department of Labor reported Thursday those Utahns were among another 2.98 million Americans thrown out of work, for a total of 36.5 million displaced since COVID-19 began ravaging the U.S. economy in early March.

Utah has now seen 176,706 people seek government help for layoffs, furloughs or reduced pay due to the pandemic and measures to contain it. That number includes 21,331 self-employed and gig workers who are now also eligible for jobless benefits under a new program.

But the state Department of Workforce Services said Thursday that 7,481 state residents have dropped their unemployment claims over the past two weeks — evidence that some are returning to work as Utah moderates its perceived risk level from COVID-19 and social distancing measures begin to ease.

Unemployment Insurance Division Director Kevin Burt called the signs “encouraging” and said he anticipated filings would continue to decline from their early April highs as the economy dials back up.

State officials reported paying out a total of $78.6 million in unemployment benefits for the week ending May 9, with $27.8 million of that in traditional jobless aid and another $50.7 million in federal pandemic relief passed by Congress. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act has added a $600 weekly stipend to state benefits, through July 31.

Residents continue to report delays in receiving unemployment help, and the state says it is now taking between 21 and 30 days to process new claims.

The Labor Department said the nation’s unemployment rate has likely pushed passed 14.7%, even as states including Utah have begun to ease health restrictions and slowly reopen portions of their economies.

Utah continues to report that up to 70% of those filing unemployment claims are “job attached,” meaning they have been furloughed for now, with an expectation of eventually returning to their jobs.

Newly released data also shows how the impacts of social distancing and stay-at-home orders in Utah spread over the past two months from restaurants and similar hospitality sectors to the wider economy.

Food workers made up a dominant share of claims beginning in mid-March. By early April, office workers, retail sales employees and those in personal services such as barbershops and nail salons began losing work as well, numbers show.

So did those who said they worked in management positions and in the production and transportation sectors as weekly claims peaked above 33,000 the first week of April, more than quadrupling records set in the Great Recession.

And by then, health care practitioners, technicians and support staff were also being idled, the claims data shows, as major medical providers in the state preemptively postponed elective care to free up hospital capacity for the pandemic.

Mid-April saw hundreds of claims start to come in from those in the construction sector, in addition to other industries.

The last half of April and early May have been marked by steady claims volumes from all of those sectors, led by office and sales jobs but with hundreds of new filings from installation and maintenance employees as well.

Thursday’s report, reflecting the week ending May 9, has office, retail and production sector employees leading the state’s jobless claims.