Utah unemployment claims keep inching down, now reaching Great Recession levels

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A shopper is directed to the entrance at Nordstrom in Murray on Friday, May 22, 2020.

Nearly 5,455 Utahns filed for unemployment last week, the lowest number since mid-March, when COVID-19 first began to roil labor markets.

They joined some 2.1 million people across the country who sought jobless aid the week ending May 23, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday, for a total more than 40 million Americans who’ve lost work due to the pandemic.

That marks the seventh week Utah jobless claims have declined from their early April spike of 33,000 Utahns reporting pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs. By comparison, peak weeks during the Great Recession hovered around 5,000 claims.

One national analyst noted that the U.S. had passed the milestone of 100,000 deaths due to the coronavirus the same week it surpassed 40 million unemployment claims.

“The reality from coast to coast is that the job market has not made a big comeback,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York City.

More than 190,800 Utahns have sought unemployment benefits since the week ending March 7, including more than 26,200 self-employed and contract workers, who are now covered for jobless aid under a new program.

Noting the historic nature of the surge, Utah’s Unemployment Insurance Division Director Kevin Burt said Thursday the state Department of Workforce Services had received as many claims in the past 10 weeks as it did during the previous three years.

Utah’s jobless rate for April was 9.7%, the Labor Department reported Friday — well below the national rate of 14.7%.

Several studies — including one released Thursday by the personal finance website Wallet Hub — indicate the economic effects from the pandemic, though profound, have been reduced in the Beehive State compared to the rest of the country.

Among U.S. states, Utah has had the fifth lowest rise in unemployment compared to the year before, according to Wallet Hub’s analysis — although that rise has been a staggering 418%.

The state Department of Workforce Services said at least 16,350 Utahns have dropped their unemployment claims in recent weeks, implying they’ve returned to work as stay-at-home restrictions continue to ease and the state reopens more of its economy.

Nationally, nearly 3.9 million workers also stopped claiming state unemployment benefits last week, according to the Labor Department.

Utah officials estimate that up to 70% of residents who’ve seen employment disruptions since March remain job attached, meaning they are essentially furloughed with the prospect of returning to work.

The state paid out $76 million in benefits the week ending May 23, with $26.4 million of that drawn from the state’s unemployment trust fund, which is replenished by employers. Another $48.8 million was paid to Utahns in federal aid, including a $600 weekly COVID-19 stipend being added to recipients’ checks through the end of July.

State officials report that new jobless claims are currently taking between 21 and 30 days to process.