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Jobless claims surge in Iowa as result of coronavirus pandemic

Jobless claims surge in Iowa as result of coronavirus pandemic

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DES MOINES — Waiters, bartenders and hotel employees are among the workers idled in the novel coronavirus pandemic most driving a sharp spike in unemployment benefit claims, state officials said Thursday.

Iowa Workforce Development officials reported the initial unemployment insurance claims filed for the week of March 15-21 was 41,890 — over 18 times greater than those a week earlier.

The agency paid out nearly $10.7 million in jobless benefits to individuals who lived or worked in Iowa for the week ending March 20.

The maximum amount of state unemployment benefits a laid-off Iowan who qualifies can receive will vary based on how many dependents he or she has, according to Iowa Workforce Development officials. For someone with four dependents, the maximum is $591 per week; for someone with no dependents, the maximum is $481 a week.

Claimants can expect the payment within seven to 10 days after a claim is filed, said department Director Beth Townsend. The maximum number of weeks a claimant who worked full-time is eligible is 26.

Jobless claims across the country spiked as more and more business have shut down or reduced operations to contain the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday that nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week — more than quadruple the record set in 1982.

Filings for unemployment aid generally indicate the pace of layoffs, and the surge in weekly applications reflects the damage the viral outbreak has inflicted on the Iowa and U.S. economies.

But furloughed Iowa workers stand to benefit from an estimated $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that passed the U.S. Senate and is expected to see U.S. House approval this week en route to President Donald Trump’s desk and his expected signature.

Under the measure, idled Iowa workers would get the state unemployment benefit plus a $600-per-week add-on from the federal government — payments that continue for 13 weeks after state benefits cap out.

For Iowa, the five industries with the most coronavirus-related claims for unemployment benefits in the March 15-21 period were accommodation and food services (13,364); health care and social assistance (4,936), education services (2,698), other services (1,999) and retail trade (1,710).

Last week, Townsend called the volume of Iowans filing for unemployment benefits “staggering” and approaching in one week what normally would be a month’s worth of claims.

She noted Thursday that benefits under the federal stimulus bill will be extended to Iowans who are self-employed or self-proprietors or who work for an independent contractor or a nonprofit organization.

Iowa Workforce Development employees were able to process all of the initial unemployment insurance claims received in the latest weekly time frame, despite the surge.

But Gov. Kim Reynolds apologized for delays and said the agency had dedicated 250 staff members to processing claim requests. Townsend said more temporary workers are being hired and trained to handle calls.

“We know that there will be long waits from the resulting surge that we’ve seen in claims and we ask everyone to be patient and to show us grace,” said Townsend, who noted the department is receiving “tens of thousands” more applications than usual.

“We are certainly here to help,” she said. “It just may take us a little longer to get to you, but we will get to you and we will help.”

Department officials said Iowans should visit IowaWorkforceDevelopment.gov to file for their initial and weekly unemployment claims.

Officials say the department — which reported a monthly unemployment rate of just 2.8 percent in January, before the U.S. onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — is receiving an unprecedented level of calls and have several hundred staffers answering.

“However, long waits are resulting from the surge and many of the questions can be answered by the information contained on our website,” according to an Iowa Workforce Development news release. “We ask everyone to be patient when calling and to consider looking to the website first for answers to their questions.”

On March 17, the governor declared a statewide public health disaster emergency that included limiting gatherings to 10 people and closing bars, restaurants, casinos and other businesses. Reynolds said she took the extraordinary action to slow the community spread of the virus that in Iowa has resulted in one death, triggered 179 known confirmed cases and likely will grow in the future.

The order imposing restrictions on restaurants, bars, fitness centers, adult day cares and casinos was expanded March 22 to include salons, medical spas, barbershops, tattoo parlors, tanning facilities, massage therapy establishments and swimming pools.

Thursday, Reynolds extended the restrictions by one week to April 7, and expanded the list of retail business closures.

Also, effective at 5 p.m. Friday, the governor’s emergency order calls for suspending elective and non-essential medical and dental procedures. The order also directs health care facilities and nursing homes to engage in advanced health care screenings.

The emergency order is slated to expire at the end of April 16 unless changed by the governor.

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