The number of first-time unemployment claims filed by Iowans soared over 67,000 last week, the highest number ever. This chart shows the number of first-time unemployment claims filed since late 2019. Source: Iowa Workforce Development 

Iowa paid out more than $27.5 million in unemployment benefits last week

A record 67,334 Iowans filed for initial unemployment benefits last week, 15% higher than the number of first-time claims filed the previous week, according to newly released data from Iowa Workforce Development.

In addition, another 92,962 Iowans continued to collect unemployment during the week that ended April 4, the new data shows. In all, 160,296 Iowans, or about 10% of the state’s 1.58 million workers, filed unemployment claims last week. (The percentage is not the same as Iowa’s official unemployment rate.)

Overall, Iowa paid unemployment claims totaling more than $27.5 million, double the $13.7 million paid the previous week, according to Iowa Workforce Development. 

Since the week ending March 21, when Iowa businesses were ordered closed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, the state has paid nearly $52 million in unemployment claims, records show. The state’s unemployment trust fund held $1.2 billion at the beginning of January, according to a U.S. Department of Labor analysis.

In all, 167,677 Iowans have filed initial unemployment claims since the week ending March 21, the first week of the forced business closures. Twenty percent, or 33,006, of the newly unemployed workers had been employed in the restaurant, bar and lodging industries, records show. Another 13%, or 22,058, of the newly jobless had been working in health care and social assistance, and 10%, or 16,386, in manufacturing.

Nationally, 6.6 million new unemployment claims were filed last week, down slightly from the previous week when more than 6.8 million new claims were filed, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The advance seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the week ending March 28 was 5.1%, according to the labor department. 

Since March 17, thousands of Iowa businesses have been ordered closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, a serious respiratory illness. In Iowa, 1,270 people have tested positive for the virus that causes it, and 29 have died.

Iowa’s weekly jobless numbers are through Saturday and likely don’t capture the additional closures Gov. Kim 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. On Monday, Reynolds ordered malls, bowling alleys and several other types of retail businesses closed. The closures are effective through April 30.

The record number of telephone calls from jobless Iowans is overwhelming Iowa Workforce Development’s call center. 

Before the pandemic, the agency received an average of 400 to 700 calls a day depending on the day of the week, according to Beth Townsend, Iowa Workforce Development director. Since the mandated closures of businesses, the number of calls has soared weekly. The week beginning March 16, the agency averaged 6,000 calls per day; the following week it averaged 20,000 calls per day; and the week of March 30, 23,000 calls per day.

On Monday and Tuesday, the agency received more than 50,000 total calls, Townsend told the Business Record.

Before the pandemic, callers to Iowa Workforce Development typically waited less than two minutes before the call was answered. While the agency doesn’t yet have information about how long average wait times currently are, its website warns callers that waits will be long.

Iowa Workforce Development had about 250 workers who answered calls before the outbreak. Since mid-March, 49 new temporary workers have been hired to handle phone calls; 19 are now answering calls, and others will begin training on April 20. 

The agency has not extended the call centers hours, which are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. However, after 4:30 p.m., workers answer via email the inquiries the agency has received during the day, according to Townsend.

File a claim: To file an unemployment claim, click here.

Enhanced unemployment benefits 
Many Iowans who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic and qualify for unemployment benefits under the state’s guidelines will begin to see an additional $600 in their weekly benefit check beginning next week, according to an Iowa Workforce Development release. 

The enhanced unemployment benefits are part of the $2.2 trillion relief package Congress passed to address the novel coronavirus outbreak upending the nation’s economy.

The benefits are retroactive to March 29 and will be distributed through July 31. 

Iowa received access to the money late Tuesday, Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend told the Business Record. Iowa will be reimbursed for the amount of benefits it pays. “We have not received any indications there are any limits to the number of claims paid,” she wrote in an email.

The agency is conducting webinars for claimants and employers on the federal relief package. To view the webinars or watch previously recorded webinars, click here.