Utah’s jobless claims still high as benefits deadline looms

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune) The Department of Workforce Services building in Salt Lake City, as seen on May 1, 2020.

Utah officials are girding for end-of-year cutoffs in COVID-19 relief for thousands of residents who remain unemployed.

Thirty-two weeks into the pandemic, the state on Thursday reiterated its caution that traditional jobless aid and supplement benefits from the federal government will not last as long as the pandemic.

Roughly 32,869 Utahns are now getting jobless help week to week, accord to the latest data. Nearly 3,410 of them are independent contractors and another 8,468 are folks who’ve run out of other unemployment aid.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“The numbers have continued to grow and it comes across incredibly cold as we talk about the limitations of the unemployment insurance program in the middle of a health pandemic,” said Kevin Burt, the program’s director for the state Department of Workforce Services.

“But we also think it’s really critical to explain what the limitations are so that people are not surprised when those limitations come up and they exhaust the benefit,” Burt said.

Unemployment recipients are being urged to seek new work as quickly as they can, even if it involves retraining or finding employment in an unfamiliar industry. Utah is also encouraging those who remain out of work to start applying for other assistance programs, such as nutritional help, medical coverage and supplements for child care. More information on those can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov.

The news Thursday comes as new data also suggests the state’s five biggest metropolitan areas are seeing very different unemployment scenarios.

The state’s jobless rate bumped up to 5% in September. The rates in Salt Lake City and St. George are slightly higher, at 5.2%, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment in Logan, Provo-Orem and the Ogden-Clearfield area, though, is lower with rates of 3%, 3.8% and 4.2% respectively.

The gap is due in part to higher numbers of leisure and hospitality jobs affected by the pandemic in Utah’s capitol and in St. George, data suggest.

Overall, new jobless claims in Utah fell below 4,000 last week for the first time since mid-March, even as nearly 751,000 Americans sought help the same week with new layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, the Labor Department reported.

While well below peak levels in the pandemic, those weekly claims in Utah are still nearly quadruple what they were before the crisis struck.

Typical state unemployment assistance in Utah can last up to 26 weeks, depending on the recipient’s prior work history. Special jobless help on top of that, approved by the feds in light of COVID-19 has included aid to traditionally uncovered gig workers and for those who have used up their other benefits.

Those, Burt said, will go away at the end of the year, under rules passed in late March. And after a stalemate in Congress, he said, “it does not appear nationally there is going to be an additional stimulus benefit anytime soon.”

Since late July, when a $600 weekly federal stipend paid out on top typical benefits went away, nearly 61,550 Utahns have dropped off unemployment rolls.

Officials are steering out-of-work residents to a new portal offering job listings in sectors that are gaining employment right now, including construction, finance and banking and health care. State job boards currently list nearly 30,000 openings. Utahns' can find more info at jobs.utah.gov.

“We just encourage people to continue to look,” said Nate McDonald, assistant deputy director at DWS. “Don’t give up and take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.”