Utah’s unemployment picture improved slightly, but claims are still running high

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cinemark's Century 16 Theater in South Salt Lake remains closed due to COVID-19 on Thursday, June 11, 2020. Though many movie theaters and other business remain shuttered due to the pandemic, Utah's latest jobless claims indicate many residents are returning to work as the economy reopens.

Utah’s new unemployment claims hit their lowest level in 10 weeks but still remain nearly four times higher than usual.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that 4,847 residents applied for jobless benefits last week as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a toll a full three months after it first hit Utah.

They were among 1.5 million Americans seeking unemployment the week ending June 13, the Labor Department said, the third week in a row that number has fallen below 2 million.

With Thursday’s report, the country has reached a historic total of 46 million Americans who’ve seen their pay cut, been furloughed or thrown out of work due to COVID-19 and attempts to contain it.

By comparison, some 33,000 Utahns filed for jobless assistance the first week in April, when stay-at-home directives for social distancing remained firmly in place across many of the state’s population centers.

For the week ending March 7 — just before the coronavirus emergency started leading to job losses in the state — initial unemployment claims were at 1,015. Last week’s filings, meanwhile, were at a level comparable to peak weeks of the Great Recession.

And while at least 211,400 Utahns — including nearly 30,000 self-employed, independent contractors and other so-called gig economy workers — have reported job disruptions since early March, around 87,937 filed ongoing jobless claims as of last week.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

That and other signs indicate more Utahns are returning to work in large numbers as the economy reopens.

The state Department of Workforce Services, which oversees unemployment aid, paid out $24.9 million in traditional state benefits last week and another $48.3 million in federal pandemic relief stipends of $600 weekly approved by Congress in late March.

Thanks largely to that relief check, reports show out-of-work Utahns have received an unprecedented total of $732 million in benefits since the COVID-19-related avalanche of claims began March 15.

That figure also includes almost $12 million paid to gig workers, who also qualify for benefits temporarily under a new program of pandemic assistance.

Kevin Burt, director of the state’s unemployment insurance division, noted in a statement that the stipend — which in many cases has given aid recipients more in benefits than they earned while on the job — is set to expire at the end of July.

At that point, Burt said, “continued economic stability for those on the benefit will only be found in employment.”