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Utah unemployment claims skyrocket as coronavirus containment forces massive layoffs

Lance Soffe leads a virtual workshop for people seeking unemployment assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Utah Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
Lance Soffe leads a virtual workshop for people seeking unemployment assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Utah Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A record number of Utahns applied for jobless benefits last week as employers laid off thousands of workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services Thursday reported nearly 20,000 people filed claims for the week of March 15 through 21 — almost four times as many as have ever done so in any one week in history.

The department received 19,591 claims for the week ending March 21, a 1,391% spike over the previous week’s total of 1,314 claims. It’s also 2,114% higher than the 885 claims made in the same period last year. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 3.3 million new claims for unemployment benefits came in the week ending March 21.

In Utah, the previous high for claims was from Sept. 29, 2013, to Oct. 5, 2013, when 5,421 claims were made during the federal government shutdown, explained Kevin Burt, director of the state’s Department of Workforce Services Unemployment Insurance Division. The second-highest week was that ending Jan. 10, 2009, during the Great Recession when 5,205 claims were filed, he added.

“Clearly, the volume of claims has increased significantly, and also quickly,” Burt said. “The Unemployment Insurance Division staff are working diligently to try to meet this high demand, understanding the significance of this benefit to those that are applying.”

According to a news release, the three industries that had the highest percentage of claims for the week, as identified by the claimant at the time of their filing, were food preparation and serving at 37%, office and administrative support at 9.3%, and management at 8.6%.

Statewide, the five counties with the highest number of individuals filing new unemployment insurance claims were Salt Lake County at 47%, Utah County at 12.4%, Davis County at 7.1%, and Washington and Weber counties both registering at 6.2%, the release stated.

Lance Soffe leads a virtual workshop for people seeking unemployment assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Utah Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
Lance Soffe leads a virtual workshop for people seeking unemployment assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Utah Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

“We have designed a webinar specifically for those that are temporarily out of work. This webinar is designed to give those people that are temporarily out of work the resources they need and any information they need to know to weather the storm until they can get back to work,” explained Lance Soffe, the department’s Employer Initiatives program manager.

On the site, claimants can find a regularly updated list of frequently asked questions, along with the workshops conducted twice daily that provide information on applying for unemployment benefits, temporary financial assistance that may be available and tips for finding new employment, he said. Additionally, the page also includes an FAQ for employers regarding unemployment insurance, he noted.

“We have a temporary system with food stamps, with Medicaid and child care,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is try to expedite the process for these individuals (by) giving them good information.”

The free webinars typical run 30 minutes to 40 minutes, he said.

“This is our time to support Utah. We have additional resources that (people) may not know about,” Soffe said. “We want everyone who is potentially eligible for these things to know that they are here.

“Additionally, we go into some resources that they may not be able to use right now but maybe in the future,” he added. “We have job search tools, we have training, ways to advance their careers maybe even later on once we are back to normal. It’s just good information.”