As unemployment claims ease, Utah will make ‘furloughed’ workers look for new jobs

New unemployment claims in Utah have fallen to their lowest level since the pandemic began, even as national jobless numbers ticked up slightly.

Utahns filed 3,737 new claims the week ending Saturday, down dramatically from a coronavirus-related peak of 33,000 reached in April and well below its average level of about 5,000 per week since late May.

But 1.4 million Americans also filed new unemployment claims last week, the Department of Labor reported Thursday, the 19th week that number has topped 1 million.

New filings nationally were up from the previous week as many states saw trouble reopening business as the virus surged.

Even Utah’s more subdued number is still almost three times the average weekly claims filed just before the coronavirus outbreak began.

A top Utah official said Thursday that in light of continued economic improvement in Utah and elimination of the $600 weekly payment, the state will soon end its policy of exempting recipients from weekly job searches when they report they are furloughed rather than laid off.

Doing away with that “job-attached” status will mean recipients will have to register for job openings and prove they are looking for employment each week to continue receiving benefits, according to Kevin Burt, director of the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

The state had suspended that requirement for making at least four job contacts weekly as of mid-March, given that over 70% of applicants affected by the pandemic have reported they are furloughed and could be called back to their old jobs.

The new policy change, effective Aug. 15, “will encourage claimants to actively look for work to receive their benefits each week,” Burt said.

Ongoing jobless claims in Utah have declined for 12 straight weeks, with new claims lower than the number of residents dropping their applications as they return to work. The state Department of Workforce Services said it was paying benefits to about 83,710 Utahns on an ongoing basis as of last week.

That includes about 8,813 Utahns who are self-employed or independent contractors who have been made eligible for benefits during the pandemic, the department said.

Since the health crisis began, Utah has paid out $1.2 billion in jobless benefits. Nearly $777.6 million of that was paid in the form of the $600 weekly stipend, according to state officials, compared to $385.6 million paid out in traditional state benefits.

Separately, the Commerce Department said Thursday that the U.S. gross domestic product, a measure of goods and services produced in the country, fell by a record 9.5% in the second quarter. The news comes as boosted unemployment benefits expired this week for millions of recipients, meaning they will soon see at least $600 per week less in aid. Congress remains divided on extending that stipend over concerns from GOP senators the elevated benefits are dissuading some from returning to work.