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Unemployment claims continue at historic levels in Utah

The Utah Department of Workforce Services building in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services building in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The number of Utahns filing for unemployment benefits continues to soar as more individuals and businesses are impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services reported Thursday that 28,560 new claims were made last week, amounting to $3.97 million paid in benefits. The average new weekly claims filed a year ago were 1,131, the division noted in a news release.

“We are approaching more new claims in the last two weeks than the number of claims filed in all of 2019,” said DWS Unemployment Insurance Division Director Kevin Burt. “The Unemployment Insurance Division staff continue to work diligently to meet this unprecedented volume.”

Part of the unemployment insurance division’s responsibility is to make sure that there is a trust fund available to pay out these benefits, Burt explained. Money collected from Utah employers through the state unemployment tax are used solely to fund benefits for eligible unemployed workers with all receipts from the tax deposited in the Utah Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, the DWS website stated.

The trust currently contains just over $1.1 billion, which could last about a year if the historic jobless rate continues as is, Burt said. The enormous volumes of claims could potentially become an issue if the crisis extends over a longer time frame, he said.

He said DWS is working feverishly to keep up with the processing of benefits, and payouts are already being made to claimants who filed just as the pandemic struck the Beehive State.

“We’re not sure how long these claims are going to continue, so we have to respond to this historic volume,” Burt said. “It’s 21 days, but probably closer to 21 to 30 days when it comes to processing benefits. But we’re not even 21 days into this.”

He noted that in-house training for staff has been hindered somewhat due to social distancing prohibiting mass training sessions. The division has implemented virtual training to help staff get up to speed on assisting people filing for benefits, he said.

“We understand the need and we’re responding to that need. But we are going to see some disruption in our service levels,” he said. “But we’re going to respond, because we need to make sure these individuals get the benefit that is critical to them.”

He said applicants must also be diligent in filing their claims regularly or risk not being paid.

“Unemployment insurance is paid week to week. And so every week, you have to make an attestation of where you are at. So you go (through) your regular application process, and you file a weekly claim and you answer five questions,” he explained. “Now all these individuals are job attached, so the weekly claim is actually fairly simple. But if you do not file your weekly claim, you will not get paid even if you are eligible because the assumption is if you did not file your claim, you are no longer in need of the benefits.”

For the week, the three industries that saw the highest percentage of claims were in food service, at 16.6%, office and administrative support at 12% and management at 9.5%.