Utah’s jobless numbers are stuck at record levels

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Officials with the Utah Department of Workforce Services are warning residents receiving unemployment benefits that the aid is running out and they need to find new jobs.

Utah officials repeated their warnings Thursday that residents getting unemployment benefits are running out of time and need to find jobs.

New weekly claims for assistance have fallen dramatically from their pandemic peaks in early April, but continue to run high by historical standards, hovering around 4,500 per week since late August — a level comparable to some of the worst weeks of the Great Recession.

The state’s 4.1% unemployment rate is one the country’s lowest, even as nearly 37,570 Utah residents are still filing claims for government help week to week, according to new state data.

“The unemployment insurance program will not last the length of this pandemic,” Kevin Burt, the program’s executive director, said on Thursday.

“Individuals need to be actively involved in the labor force and actively involved in job searching,” Burt said, “We will continue to make efforts to try and encourage that.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Some 8,366 of those weekly aid recipients are now on extended benefits, after their traditional 26 weeks of unemployment benefits ran out. Another 3,747 of the ongoing claims are from out-of-work independent contractors and the self employed, the Department of Workforce Services reported.

Both those federally funded programs are set to expire at the end of the year.

The state is also starting to see jobless claims rise as some seasonal work closes down for winter, separate from market effects from the coronavirus, officials said.

With those year-end deadlines on federal relief money approaching, the state shifted its approach to furloughed workers in late August, requiring them to look for work even though their former employers were leaving open the possibility of calling them back to their old positions.

The head of Gov. Gary Herbert’s team guiding Utah’s economic recovery from COVID-19 said the state has put a top priority on connecting unemployed Utahns with new available job openings, including nearly 1,300 so-called “hot jobs” in growing sectors.

Utah officials launched a web portal two weeks ago highlighting these positions in construction, the financial sector, health care, light and advance manufacturing, information technology and life sciences.

“These efforts will help individuals in a big, big way,” said Taylor Randall, who is also dean of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.

The state has some 33,000 job openings overall, said Randall, who also highlighted campaigns to offer job retraining and boost consumer confidence in Utah as it seeks to pull out of a pandemic downturn.

Randall urged employers to heed Herbert’s newly released system of health indexes, which calls for varying degrees of restrictions by region depending on whether their transmission rates are deemed to be high, moderate or low.

“Our basic tools in combating spread in the workforce and the spread overall are wearing masks and social distancing,” he said. Businesses in areas with high or moderate transmission rates will have to “actually insist that customers and employees all wear masks.”

And the next few weeks will be crucial, Randall said, in efforts to lower case rates and reverse recent trends that have seen Utah consumers pull back from their usual spending patterns as they feel less safe.

He noted that over 3,300 businesses in Utah had already signed onto a pledge backed by the Salt Lake Chamber that they will stick to a set of basic health practices — including mask wearing, hand washing, stepped-up cleaning and stay-home policies for workers who show symptoms.

Those steps in the so-called “Stay Safe to Stay Open” pledge, Randall said, “will give your customers confidence to enter your businesses.”