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Extended federal benefits keeping Utah jobless claims at historic levels, official says

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The Utah Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, July 16, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands of Utahns continue to apply for jobless benefits in the early weeks of the New Year.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services reported Thursday the total number of new claims filed for unemployment compensation in Utah tallied at 6,814 for the week of Jan. 10 through Jan. 17. There were nearly 31,000 continued claims filed during that same week, the data indicated, up nearly 2,500 from the previous week.

“We continue to see a significant demand for the unemployment benefit, the passing of the Continued Assistance Act has increased that demand,” said Kevin Burt, Unemployment Insurance Division director. “While many of the temporary unemployment benefits were extended with the Continued Assistance Act, the unemployment insurance program remains time-limited; actively looking for work remains critical as we continue to see Utah’s economy recover from this pandemic.”

Despite a recent rise in assistance claims, Burt said the increase isn’t necessarily indicative of weakness in the state’s job market but an issue brought on by the latest federal relief package.

“The Continued Assistance Act created essentially an extension to both the pandemic unemployment assistance and the 13-week extension that required people who had exhausted to reapply (for benefits),” he explained. “Individuals were on the benefit, they reached their limit, have fallen off and now with the extension, if they remain unemployed, they can now reapply.”

“Overall, we’ve seen a drop-off in claims this weekend and so has the nation. You do have to account for the Continued Assistance Act creating new applications, but they’re not technically new layoffs,“ he said. “It’s new applications for people that had exhausted before so it’s not a new wave of layoffs. (However), it is unfortunate that people haven’t been able to reconnect to the workforce.”

Those returning applicants are the main reason for the recent increases in new claims, he said. The increased volume has also put more pressure on the agency to process the additional filings, but the division is working diligently to maintain a reasonable turnaround period for all new filings.

“We still remain committed to the 30 days or less and even throughout the length of the pandemic, we are at 90%-plus in processing (claims) in under 30 days,” Burt said. “So this is an uptick for sure, but we already have a lot of information on individuals that are returning so that does help with the processing.”

The most recent stimulus package was enacted on Dec. 27, 2020. He said some returning applicants are eligible for benefits as far back as that date depending upon their individual qualifications.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press report showed the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell slightly last week to 900,000, still a historically high level that points to ongoing job cuts in a raging pandemic.

The Labor Department’s report Thursday underscored that President Joe Biden has inherited an economy that faltered this winter as virus cases spiked, cold weather restricted dining and federal rescue aid expired. The government said 5.1 million Americans are continuing to receive state jobless benefits, down from 5.2 million in the previous week. That suggests that while some of the unemployed are finding jobs, others are likely using up their state benefits and transitioning to separate extended-benefit programs.

More than 10 million people are receiving aid from those extended programs, which now offer up to 50 weeks of benefits, or from a new program that provides benefits to contractors and the self-employed. All told, nearly 16 million people were on unemployment in the week that ended Jan. 2, the latest period for which data is available.

”Unemployment claims continue to show a job market unable to progress further as long as COVID-19 remains in the driver’s seat,” Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor, told the AP. “While the vaccine offers a light at the end of the tunnel, we’re still far away from a complete reopening of the economy that could drive rehiring and stem further layoffs.”