Utah’s end-of-the-month unemployment rate for February was just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Still registering among the nation’s lowest at 2.5 percent at the end of last month, the state’s jobless rate will  skyrocket before March’s numbers are tabulated and released because of the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials at the Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) say they are inundated with new unemployment claims, especially following state-mandated limits on mass gatherings that have virtually shut down the hospitality industry. There were 19,591 new claims filed for unemployment benefits from March 15-21, That represents a 1,391 percent jump in new filings from the previous week when 1,314 new claims were filed.

The crush has prompted officials to encourage workers who have experienced job disruption due to the coronavirus outbreak to seek answers to their questions and apply for benefits online at the agency’s website, jobs.utah.gov/covid19.

The latest unemployment application numbers were released well before the state government’s orders that resulted in statewide closures of bars and restaurants, but still reflected a nearly 30 percent jump in claims. For the same week, national jobless benefits applications were up 33 percent. Officials expect those numbers to at least double as reporting for subsequent weeks comes in.

The Trump administration, along with national and state business leaders, are predicting job losses in the millions as government mandates have brought the U.S. economy to a virtual standstill. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has predicted that the U.S. unemployment rate could spike to almost 20 percent from its February level of 3.5 percent. 

February’s strong jobless report bodes well for Utah’s ability to weather the coronavirus downturn. Figures through the month showed a 2.9 percent growth in nonfarm payroll since February 2019 with 1,579,7000 holding jobs during the period. 

“February’s employment profile is a strong bedrock for Utah’s economy as we turn our attention to the anticipated impacts of COVID-19,” said Mark Knold, chief economist at the Department of Workforce Services. “Across the past 10 years, the Utah economy has progressed to be in one of the healthiest and most enviable positions in the nation. Facing future uncertainties from a position of such strength is a major advantage for Utah.”

To deal with the overload of workers seeking benefits, the Department of Workforce Services has launched a virtual workshop for individuals who have experienced a temporary job loss as a result of COVID-19. The daily Rapid Response workshops are each 30-45 minutes long and provide information on how to apply for unemployment benefits, what temporary financial assistance may be available and tips for finding a new job.

“We know this is a very challenging time for many of Utah’s workers, but the Department of Workforce Services has programs and services that can help,” said Liz Carver, the department’s workforce development programs and training division director. “Our hope is that these workshops will help workers learn how to access those services and help them know they are not alone.”

Workshops are held Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. through April 10, or longer if needed. Laid-off workers can find more information about registering for the online workshop at jobs.utah.gov/covid19.

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