SALT LAKE CITY — Jobless claims in Utah “seem to be plateauing” at a level rivaling the Great Recession, a state official says.

The number of new claims for unemployment compensation in Utah increased 2.4% over the past seven days, according to weekly data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services reported Thursday. Although the overall number of people seeking benefits has gone down steadily — now at 84,557 — the number of people filing initial paperwork for jobless benefits statewide was 4,961 for the week of June 14 to June 20, compared to 4,847 claims the previous week.

“During the Great Recession, the highest we received was a little over 5,000 a week. So this pandemic certainly hit unemployment very quickly, but it also is staying there within 5,000 claims a week,” according to Unemployment Insurance Division Director Kevin Burt. “That is still at very high levels and seems to be plateauing. So even with the decreases that we’re seeing historically, they are decreasing slowly.”

He noted that although the number of weekly claims was below the 5,000 threshold, the volume is still 339% higher than the 1,131 claim average of 2019.

“While we have seen new claims seemingly stabilize at a very high number, we remain hopeful as continued claims for ongoing benefits have declined for seven consecutive weeks,” Burt said. “This means people are returning to work faster than they are applying, we hope this continues as we work toward full economic recovery.”

He said the state has been able to use the unemployment insurance program to stabilize some of the economic losses of individuals impacted by pandemic-related layoffs. He noted that from March 15 through June 20, the division paid out $819 million in unemployment benefits across all programs, including the pandemic unemployment assistance, which aids self-employed or gig workers, as well as the 13-week extended benefit.

The number of available jobs is actually increasing during the month of June, Burt said, with over 24,000 jobs posted at jobs.utah.gov, which indicates ongoing economic activity statewide. But he cautioned that some industries that are not seeing that economic activity bounce back as quickly as hoped due to the pandemic continuing to present challenges and hurting consumer confidence.

Nationally, The Associated Press reported Thursday the number of workers across the country seeking unemployment aid declined slightly last week, and the reopening of small businesses has leveled off — revealing evidence that the job market’s gains may have stalled just as a surge in coronavirus cases is endangering a potential economic recovery.

The federal government also reported the economy contracted at a 5% annual rate during the first three months of the year — another indication of the damage being inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The economy is expected to shrink at a roughly 30% rate in the current quarter, making it the worst three-month contraction, by far, since record-keeping began in 1948. While economists do expect a rebound in the second half of the year, it is not expected be enough to reverse all the damage from the first six months of the year.

In Utah, Department of Workforce Services officials are also on the watch for people who are at high risk for serious COVID-19 infections who fear returning to the workplace.

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“If an employer offers an individual that has high risk a job and that person refuses that job because they are high risk, during their weekly continued claim they should attest that they refused to work because we are encouraging employers to also report those that refuse work,” Burt explained during his weekly news conference. “One of the things that we will be evaluating is good cause to refuse that work. If it is verified that an individual or job seeker is high risk, that will be factored in as good cause resulting in an individual not losing the benefit in many instances.

“What we do hope is that, for the most part, the employer and the employee understand and try to work together rather than having unemployment insurance adjudicate that decision. But if it is presented to us and we are able to verify that an individual’s high risk, we want to encourage that person to stay home and stay safe, and we will evaluate the cause.”

The state paid out $23.9 million in traditional unemployment payments, according to the latest weekly summary, along with $45.8 million in $600 weekly stimulus monies distributed to claimants, as well as $1.2 million in federal extended-benefit payments for a weekly total of $71 million in unemployment benefits.

The industries with the highest volume of claims for the weeklong period were office and administrative support at 11.7%, management occupations at 10% and production occupations at 8.6%. The Beehive State counties with the highest number of individuals filing new unemployment insurance claims were Salt Lake County at 38.7%, Utah County at 15%, Davis County at 7.5%, Weber County at 6.9%, and Washington County at 4%.

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