Utah pushes the unemployed to find new work as some jobless benefits are about to disappear

(AP file photo/Rick Bowmer) People line up outside the Utah Department of workforce Services Monday, April 13, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

The state of Utah is warning thousands of residents thrown out of work by the pandemic that government assistance will soon run out and they need to get a job.

With just under 50,000 Utahns still officially laid off, furloughed or struggling with pay cuts due to the coronavirus and still receiving some kind of aid, state officials are launching a $1 million public campaign to connect them with new work.

UT Job Support will include TV, online, radio and outdoor billboard ads highlighting a series of year-end cutoffs to benefits and steering residents toward “hot jobs” in industries that are faring better in the downturn.

Job seekers are being directed to jobs.utah.gov to find those openings, as well as job training and apprenticeships.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Wednesday cast the new campaign as part of state officials' simultaneous focus on Utah’s economy and the health of its residents.

“We want to make sure that Utahns who are unemployed right now know that there are actually jobs available,” Cox said at an event Wednesday to launch the campaign. “We don’t want anyone to wait to start looking for a job. We want that to happen right now.”

Calling the numbers “staggering,” Cox noted that more than 300,000 Utahns had sought unemployment at some point since the crisis started, drawing state and federal benefit payouts worth more than $1.5 billion.

Never before in our state’s history have we experienced such a dramatic shock in such a short amount of time to our economy,” he said.

Among other problems now looming, state leaders and social-service providers want to avoid a train wreck shortly after Jan. 1, when extended federal aid and a series of other temporary programs for jobless and struggling Americans expire.

Officials also predict a typical seasonal downturn in jobs will boost the state’s jobless numbers as winter approaches.

“We see some headwinds‚” said Taylor Randall, who is leading economic recovery efforts as part of the Gov. Gary Herbert’s Unified Response Team on COVID-19. He noted that payroll protection loans — funneled to millions of small businesses early in the crisis to help cover their workers’ wages — will also be running out as 2020 draws to a close.

Other non-employment related sources of help, such as rental assistance and boosted food stamps, will run out about the same time.

Randall, who is also dean of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, said some Utahns furloughed in the crisis will have to give up hopes of returning to their prior job.

“The key to Utah’s economic recovery is getting people employed,” he said. “In some cases, this means taking advantage of what is available rather than waiting for previous employment to come back.”

Working with Utah’s professional trade groups, the state has identified construction, the financial sector, health care, light and advance manufacturing, information technology and life sciences as promising industries. Right now, Utah has listings for around 30,000 job openings.

In August, Utah officials began requiring that workers who reported they were furloughed and might return to their former positions to instead start looking for other jobs in order to qualify for future benefits.

Cox said Wednesday that through UT Job Support, the state will now urge Utahns to seek new employment on a temporary basis to avoid any benefits pinch early next year.

A spokesman for the state Department of Workforce Services said that approach will also apply to unemployed workers who are in population groups more at risk from COVID-19, such as the elderly and immune-compromised.

We encourage them to start looking for opportunities that will accommodate their needs,” Nate McDonald said, noting that some available jobs might let at-risk applicants work from home or physically distance in the workplace.

Cox said the campaign also intends to change some unemployed workers' minds: “If your industry is down and not hiring right now, you may have to look at a job in a different industry or different opportunities where where they are hiring."

The good news, Cox noted, “is that Utah’s economy is rebounding quicker than virtually anyone projected.”

The Beehive State has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country — at 4.1% in August compared with a U.S. rate of 8.4%. Jobs in the state’s construction sector, in particular, have picked up in recent months. But ongoing claims for jobless benefits in the state only last week dipped below 50,000 for the first time since the crisis began.

Traditional state unemployment aid typically runs out after 26 weeks, meaning that Utahns who saw their work disrupted and sought benefits when COVID-19 first hit in mid-March are nearing the end of that assistance.

Data from the state indicate that roughly 9,190 Utahns are now receiving extended benefits through emergency federal assistance. Another 4,850 Utahns who are currently getting one-time assistance for independent contractors, the self-employed and similar workers will also soon face an end to that aid.