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Unemployment claims falling but still at historically high levels for Utah

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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 — The volume of Utahns seeking jobless benefits is declining, but the number of people who are still accessing unemployment assistance remains at record heights.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services reported Thursday that the total number of new claims for unemployment benefits registered at 4,591 for the week of Aug. 23 to Aug. 29, with a total of $18.3 million paid out to recipients.

There were 52,782 Utahns filing continuing claims for jobless aid.

“One week down is certainly not a trend, but it is promising to see that significant drop, meaning less and less people are being disrupted with COVID-19 and this pandemic,” said Unemployment Insurance Division Director Kevin Burt. “We are seeing less disruption to employment in the form of people having to apply for a new claim for unemployment benefits.”

Since the pandemic began around March 15. The agency has processed over 290,000 unemployment claims in about 24 weeks, he said.

“To put that into some context, last year during the entire year of 2019, the department took 63,000 claims,” Burt said. “In fact, it’s nearly five years of claims in six months.”

He added that the unemployment insurance office has paid out an estimated $1.4 billion in benefits over that six-month period compared to $150 million total in 2019. He also said that while the number of claims is far below the peak of 33,000 in April, the current amount of nearly 4,600 weekly claims is still well above the historic volume the state usually receives.

“For historical perspective, the most claims the unemployment insurance division ever took in a single week before the pandemic was in the Great Recession, and it was 5,000 in a single week,” he explained. “This week, while it is down, it is near the record level pre-pandemic. So we’re certainly seeing a significant disruption with this pandemic to individuals’ employment.”

He noted that the state is still pursuing the short-term stimulus payment funding available through the Lost Wages Assistance program. Money for the temporary assistance is only immediately available for three weeks from July 26 through Aug. 15. Individuals are deemed eligible if their weekly unemployment benefit amount was at least $100, they were eligible for one of the standard unemployment programs and they were unemployed or partially unemployed as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burt explained.

Speaking at a weekly news conference, he added that benefits will be calculated automatically and distributed to qualified recipients later this month based on unemployment claims already received.

Individuals do not need to call or apply separately for the benefit, he said.

“It is not an active ongoing benefit. It is a retroactive stimulus payment for those that are eligible for it,” Burt said.

He reiterated that his office will compile the information necessary to determine eligibility. Eligible recipients will receive the assistance as part of their weekly dispersal amount, and more aid is on the way as well, he said.

“Utah, last week, applied for and received two additional weeks of lost wages assistance of $300 a week, meaning that individuals that are determined eligible can now receive up to five weeks of the $300 a week payment,” Burt said. “That will now go from July 25 through Aug. 29. Again it’s for individuals that have already received the benefit, and if they are eligible they receive an additional $300 stimulus.”