Utah’s new unemployment claims jump 35% as winter nears and COVID-19 worsens

‘There are jobs’ — State officials urge aid recipients to pursue work in less-affected sectors.

(Lynne Sladky | AP file photo) A Help Wanted sign is posted at a Designer Eyes store at Brickell City Centre, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Miami. The number of people applying for unemployment aid jumped last week to 853,000, the most since September, evidence that some companies are cutting more jobs as new virus cases spiral higher. The Labor Department said Thursday, Dec. 10, that the number of applications increased from 716,000 the previous week.

After months of steady declines, Utah’s new unemployment claims jumped 35% last week as winter weather and rising coronavirus cases sidelined thousands of workers.

Some 4,758 residents sought jobless aid the week ending Dec. 5, including 1,364 Utahns who are applying for two federal aid programs about to expire in two weeks without further action from Congress.

Nine months into the pandemic, Utah is seeing weekly claims at four times their levels in an average year — and matching or exceeding peaks reached in the worst weeks of the 2009 Great Recession.

More than 27,133 workers in the Beehive State are currently relying on state unemployment benefits from week to week, and another 32,000 or more, according to state officials, are coping with layoffs, furloughs or reduced pay without drawing government aid.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah typically sees an upswing in unemployment claims November through January, particularly as some seasonal construction jobs go dormant, but last week’s uptick is also heavily driven by the impact of rising COVID-19 infections, a top official said Thursday.

“It is clear the pandemic continues to be disruptive and the unemployment benefit will continue to be needed until we’re able to get to more stability, whether that’s through a vaccine or continued economic progress,” said Kevin Burt, director of the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Nationwide, more than 947,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday. That was up nearly 229,000 from the week before, reversing a one-week dip that many economists attributed to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Applications across the country have now risen three times in the past four weeks and are up nearly a quarter-million since the first week of November.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the week’s figure was 853,000, an increase of 137,000.

Nearly 428,000 applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the federal program that covers freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular state benefits. Without a new relief package from Congress, that program and another extending benefits by up to 13 weeks for those who’ve exhausted other aid will end Dec. 26.

State officials have been warning of the cutoff for months, urging unemployment aid recipients to ramp up their job searches and pursue work in sectors less affected by the pandemic that have ample job openings, including information technology and the banking and financial sectors.

It is tough if you’re stuck in an industry that hasn’t rebounded and you’re still trying to find a job in that area,” said Nate McDonald, assistant deputy director and the state Department of Workforce Services. “But there are jobs available in Utah.”

Burt said those out of work should also apply for other state benefits, including available subsidies for food, medical costs, rent, utility bills and child care. He also urged those with questions to visit the state’s job site: http://jobs.utah.gov.

Unemployment filings in the U.S. have fallen greatly since the spring, when as many as 6 million people a week applied for state aid. But progress had stalled even before the recent increases, and with COVID-19 cases soaring and states, including Utah, reimposing some restrictions on consumers and businesses, economists fear that layoffs could surge again.

“It’s very clear the third wave of the pandemic is causing businesses to have to lay people off and consumers to cut back spending,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist for career site Glassdoor. “It seems like we’re in for a rough winter economically.”