New unemployment claims in Utah fell to their lowest level yet during the pandemic as beefed-up relief payments came to an end and a new deadline neared for furloughed workers to resume job searches.

The state reported Thursday that 2,913 resident filed new claims for traditional jobless benefits last week, with an another 764 independent contractors and self-employed workers also seeking aid. On top of that, 1,179 state residents applied to get special federally paid extended benefits, after exhausting other help.

New weekly claims in Utah between those three categories — totally 4,856 for the week ending last Saturday — have fallen consistently for the past 12 weeks, coinciding with the state’s easing of stay-at-home directives beginning on Memorial Day.

Nationally, about 963,000 Americans filed new unemployment claims the week ending Aug. 8 — the first time that weekly number has dropped below 1 million since mid-March.

But about 15.5 million workers across the U.S. remain laid off, temporarily out of work or coping with pay cuts as of Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Labor Department. In Utah, ongoing jobless claims stood at 73,300 last week.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Many of those folks are also now coping without a $600-per-week federal stipend that expired July 25.

Here are answers to some of key questions on Utah’s latest unemployment picture:

Is Congress going to restart that $600 bonus or offer some other aid?

Utahns who’ve been relying on unemployment are in their second week of doing without that federal bonus, which means in many cases they’re getting half the money they were before.

In spite of the hardship that is creating for some, renewing the stipend remains bogged down in Washington. Senators and representatives of both parties can’t seem to agree on how to renew it as part of a larger relief package intended to replace or add to the $2.2 trillion in spending money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act passed in late March.

As that stalemate dragged on, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that called for a $400 payment weekly.

But Trump’s initial order would have required states to pay $100 of that each week. Spread over potentially tens of thousands of recipients in Utah, even that $100 per week would involve lots of state tax dollars.

Staffers for Gov. Gary Herbert confirmed Wednesday the state isn’t prepared to pay out that money until it learns more — meaning jobless recipients in the Beehive State are unlikely to see extra payments at least for several weeks. And even then, it’s unclear Utah will participate.

“If the administration develops a way to qualify for the additional $300 without burdening our budget and health response, we would consider pursuing those funds,” the governor’s communications director Anna Lehnardt said.

As of Thursday, the White House was reportedly wavering on making states pay a share, so where that will end up remains in flux.

If Utah does decide to restore the weekly bonuses, they’ll be paid out retroactively for the weeks recipients missed, according to the state’s unemployment insurance director.

What about people who are really struggling? What options are out there?

Since the $600 went way, state officials have urged Utahns who can’t find a new job to apply for other types of assistance, such as state programs for food stamps, health coverage under Medicaid, help with utility bills or even rental assistance of up to $2,000 per month.

In some cases, eligibility rules for those programs have been loosened since the stipend went away to make it easier for more residents to qualify.

Information on that is at jobs.utah.gov

What about furloughed workers who haven’t been called back yet? Is anything changing for them?

Yes.

After Aug. 15, when furloughed workers update their weekly claim online, they’ll have to prove to the state Department of Workforce Services that they have applied for other job openings.

Up to 70% of Utahns who’ve lost work in the pandemic have reported being furloughed or “job attached,” with a chance of going back to their old jobs once the economy picks up. And since March, the state has waived its usual rule that unemployed folks in that category must apply for at least four jobs openings each week to keep getting their benefits.

But nearly 21 weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s become clear the crisis isn’t going away soon. That’s brought a shift in how the state views those who still remain out of work.

Under the state’s system, all unemployment benefits eventually run out, usually after 26 weeks. So as more and more recipients get close to that deadline, Utah’s Director of Unemployment Insurance Kevin Burt said the state wants to start encouraging furloughed workers in hard-hit sectors — tourism, bars and restaurants, and other hospitality — to connect with job openings in industries that are doing better, such as construction and sales.

Even the diminished wages they might earn through temporary work in other sectors are likely to provide more stability than continuing to count just on unemployment checks, Burt said.

“This pandemic is ongoing,” he advised recipients.We’re not saying get a job anywhere, regardless of the health risks, but start actively looking for those opportunities now, prior to your benefit exhausting.”