Unemployment claims ‘coming like an avalanche’

The number of first-time unemployment claims filed by Iowans soared past 58,000 last week, the highest number ever. The graph shows the number of first-time unemployment claims filed since late 2019.

More than 58,000 Iowans last week filed for initial unemployment benefits, pushing the number of first-time applicants in March to more than 104,000, according to newly released data from Iowa Workforce Development.

It’s the highest number of newly unemployed Iowans ever in the state, eclipsing both the recession of more than a decade ago and the Great Depression.

“It’s uncharted territory,” said Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa professor and senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project. “Normally in a business cycle, your unemployment would climb over a matter of years. 

“This is just coming like an avalanche.”

The new data captures the second week of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ mandated shutdown of thousands of Iowa businesses in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes serious respiratory illnesses. In Iowa, 549 people have tested positive for the virus and nine have died.

Nationally, 6.64 million new unemployment claims were filed last week, up 3.34 million from the previous week. The number of new claims is a record high for the country, topping last week’s record of 3.3 million new claims, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Iowa’s weekly jobless numbers are through Saturday and likely don’t capture the additional closures Reynolds has mandated. On March 17, restaurants, bars and fitness centers were told to close. On March 26, other retail stores including bookstores, florists, clothing and shoe stores, cosmetic shops, and furniture and home furnishing stores were ordered closed.

While the closures are effective through April 7, President Donald Trump has extended social distancing guidelines through April 30.

Last week, Trump signed a $2 trillion economic relief package that includes an additional $600 a week assistance to unemployed Americans whose job loss was due to COVID-19. 

Ryan West, deputy director of Iowa Workforce Development, told the Business Record that the agency doesn’t yet know how much additional unemployment money the state will receive or when it will begin to be distributed. 

“That time is [to be determined] as we wait for guidance from the Department of Labor,” West wrote in an email. 

Last week, Iowa paid unemployment claims totaling more than $13.7 million, a 30% increase from the $10.6 million out the previous week, according to Iowa Workforce Development. The state’s unemployment trust fund held $1.2 billion at the beginning of January, enough to last about 18 months, according to a U.S. Department of Labor analysis.

Overall, 58,453 Iowans filed initial unemployment claims last week, state data shows.

People who work in the restaurant, bar and lodging industries make up the largest percentage of newly unemployed, state data shows. About 300,785 Iowans are employed in those industries, according to state data.

Twenty-five percent, or 25,883, of the past two weeks’ 100,343 newly unemployed are in the accommodation and food services industries, Iowa Workforce Development data shows. Another 12,426 of new applicants in the past two weeks are in health care and social assistance industries; 7,698 are in retail; and 7,168 in manufacturing.

According to Iowa Workforce Development’s news release, the agency is receiving an “unprecedented” number of calls. It said that while wait times of 15 minutes or longer are occurring, 80% of calls are being answered.

“We’re overwhelming the systems we have in place,” said Gordon, of the Iowa Policy Project. “We can’t ease new applicants into the system slowly. Everyone wants benefits immediately.”

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