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Overall unemployment numbers continue to drop in Utah, but new jobless claims edge up

Officials warn that more people are nearing end of benefits

The Utah Department of Workforce Services’ main administration building in Salt Lake City now bears the name of the late Gov. Olene S. Walker. The building was renamed during a ceremony celebrating the department’s 20th anniversary on Thursday, June 29, 2017.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services’ main administration building in Salt Lake City.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While overall unemployment numbers continue to fall in Utah, the state did see over 300 new claims for jobless benefits filed last week, according to numbers put out by the Utah Department of Workforce Services Thursday.

The uptick in new claims is one of two trends Kevin Burt, the Unemployment Insurance Division director for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, has identified over the past several weeks.

The other trend is a decrease in the number of continued claims filed each week.

The agency reported that 60,773 continuing claims were filed for the week ending Aug. 22, compared to the 66,984 that were paid out the week before. The number of continued claims have fallen for the past 16 weeks, according to Burt.

“For two consecutive weeks we have seen more than 7,000 people stop requesting the unemployment benefit; a positive sign that many have reconnected into the workforce,” said Burt in the report. “However, we also continue to see over 5,000 new claims a week, indicating that COVID-19 continues to be disruptive and the need for this critical benefit remains.”

In fact, new unemployment claims rose from 5,321 two weeks ago to 5,628, continuing a climb that started three weeks ago.

While the overall outlook is better, the figures are not back to normal, and the number of traditional unemployment insurance claims are still well above the 2019 weekly average of 8,856.

Individuals who have been on continued unemployment since the pandemic’s onset may also be in trouble in the coming months as their eligibility for unemployment benefits ends.

People are generally eligible for a period of 26 weeks of state unemployment compensation, but the federal government established an extensions benefit program during the pandemic that adds an additional 13 weeks of compensation people can receive.

Numbers for that Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Assistance program have remained steady at around 1,000 for six weeks but increased last week by around 11.7% in new claims, meaning more people are moving onto their last 13 weeks of unemployment benefits, Burt said.

To help mitigate these numbers, the Department of Workforce Services started asking people this week in their unemployment claims if they had sought work in the past week.

“You’re going to be asked every Sunday when you can file your claim: Did you look for work the week before? And it is a yes or no. And in order to be eligible for the benefit, the answer has to be yes,” Burt said.

Individuals will also be asked to give four unique job contacts, which will be randomly audited, to validate their job search.

These requirements will be enforced for all unemployment programs, according to Burt.

“The one promising sign is that we have the lowest unemployment rate in the nation,” Burt said of the finite unemployment benefits. “We have a 4.5% unemployment rate. So will it be a catastrophe? I don’t think it will be in Utah, but it will be disruptive to individuals because they will have to look for work — and potentially work — in industries that they have not worked in before.”

To provide additional support, $300 weekly stimulus payments from the Lost Wages Assistance Grant, which Utah has already been approved for, will be distributed retroactively in the coming weeks to those who are eligible. The program was for the weeks of July 26 through Aug. 15.

“There is no application,” Burt said. “No one needs to apply; no one needs to call and ask for it. If you haven’t received it, it is not that you have done anything incorrectly, it is just a matter of making sure that we understand the program, that we pay it out accurately to avoid any overpayments, and that we pull it from the right funding stream.”

Eligibility requirements listed in the executive order include having a weekly benefit amount of over $100 and an attestation that the unemployment stems from the pandemic.

Rent assistance is also still being offered, and Burt encouraged people having trouble paying for their housing to call 211 and get connected with their local agencies.