SALT LAKE CITY — For several years, Utah has boasted one of the strongest economies in the nation with historically low unemployment.
Then COVID-19 arrived and a government-mandated shutdown of gathering in all restaurants, taverns, bars, entertainment venues and clubs is expected to create a new reality for affected businesses, the state’s most populated county and its beleaguered residents. Thousands of Utahns find themselves looking at joining the unemployment line.
Nevertheless, Gov. Gary Herbert offered words of hope Friday at the state Capitol.
“There’s no reason to have the gloom and doom that’s out there. We’re going to try to help people understand and give them some certainty — the facts,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that the government does our role. I’m sure the private sector is going to step up and do their role. And together, we’re going to get through this and have success.”
The governor acknowledged that the current situation with the coronavirus is something the state has never experienced before, and the impact it’s having on people statewide and the local economy is serious. But to overcome the numerous obstacles will require strong efforts from every segment of the community.
“We’re asking everybody, this is an all hands on deck (situation). It’s not just government bailout. It’s also the private sector,” Herbert said. “We have a lot of wealthy people in this state and we need to probably call upon them more than ever before to say, ‘Give us help with our food banks, with those who are vulnerable that needs shelter.’
“Everybody has a role to play. If we all give a little we’ll get a lot, and some have the ability to give more than others,” he said. “But it’s not just government. It’s the private sector stepping up, too.”
With the state’s unemployment rate expected to climb dramatically in the coming weeks, he urged those affected by job loss to reach out to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, where resources are available to help them meet their personal financial needs.
Kevin Burt, the agency’s unemployment insurance director, said individuals who have lost their jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis should be applying for unemployment insurance benefits right away.
“A probable scenario is that they are hopeful to return to where they were working. It just might be that they are unable to work either because there’s a quarantine or because the business is slow, but they hope with the restrictions eventually removed, they’ll be able to return to work,” Burt said. “What we would do is we would consider them unemployed, which would make them eligible for unemployment benefits, but we consider them what’s called ‘job-attached.’”
Being job-attached would preclude idled workers from searching for employment, he added.
“We’d consider them connected to that employer so that the unemployment benefit would be available to them to help them replace some of their lost wages,” he said. “But if we’re able to start to reopen businesses, these employers can get these employees to return and retain their trained and talented employees.”
He likened the situation to being on furlough. Processing time for jobless claims are typically about 21 days, he said, but the agency is working to expedite claims in this unusually challenging situation.
Burt also noted that affected workers can utilize DWS as a “one-stop shop” for various benefits such as child care, food stamps and other assistance programs.
“We strongly encourage them to apply for unemployment, but also to look at the other programs that are available and apply for those as well,” he said. “They’re processed in parallel, so as we’re working toward determining eligibility for that unemployment benefit, that food stamp benefit can also be being processed as well.”
Because of the exceptionally high volume of applicants, he recommended applying online at jobs.utah.gov or calling 801-526-9675.
“If you go right to the landing page, the first thing that pops up is, ‘What to do if impacted by COVID-19,’ and it has a resource page,” Burt said.