SALT LAKE CITY — The number of individuals requesting unemployment benefits continues to decline in Utah, falling 11.9% last week.
The total amount of new claims registered at 3,113 for the week of Feb. 21 through 27, with 32,514 continued claims filed during that same week, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services' Division of Unemployment Insurance.
"Total new weekly unemployment claims have decreased for four consecutive weeks, with an overall decrease of 32% during that four-week time period," Kevin Burt, Unemployment Insurance Division director, said. "With many of the federally funded unemployment benefit extensions set to expire on March 13, 2021, we are confident there are many employment opportunities for these individuals to successfully return to work."
He noted that just last week, the division launched the Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation. The limited-eligibility program provides an additional $100 per week for up to 11 weeks to individuals who have lost both covered and self-employment wages.
Eligible recipients must have received a traditional unemployment benefit during the time period of Dec. 27, 2020, through March 13, 2021. They would need to provide evidence of having lost more than $5,000 in self-employment wages, he said.
With the downward trend in claims continuing despite higher-than-typical volume, Burt expressed guarded optimism about when the weekly claim volume might reach more normal levels like the 1,100 pre-pandemic average.
"While we are hopeful the need to file new unemployment claims will continue to subside, we believe the higher-than-normal new claim volume will continue as long as the federally funded extension programs remain," he said. "It is important to remember that historically the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — unemployment for the self-employed — and the Extended Benefits did not exist. These two programs are currently set to expire on March 13, however congressional negotiations to extend these programs continue."
Last week, those two temporary federal programs accounted for nearly 28% of new claims, inflating the current claim numbers when being compared to historical volumes, he said.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Utah boasted a robust, well-funded state Unemployment Trust Fund that totaled just over $1.1 billion. As of the end of February, the balance was approximately $740 million — depleted by about 37%, Burt said.
Even with historically higher filing volumes, the trust fund is still in good shape, he added.
"While Utah's trust fund was certainly tested with the pandemic, we are not projecting insolvency. Nationally, a total of 20 state's trust funds have gone insolvent, with three additional states projecting insolvency in the next month," he explained. "Utah is not projecting insolvency for a variety of reasons, including wise management of the fund following well thought-out legislative policies designed by Utah's legislature, nearly 65% of the benefits paid out during the pandemic being federal funds — stimulus programs not coming from the state's trust fund — as well as active efforts to keep business open in Utah while keeping Utahns safe during the pandemic."
He said the possible easing of public health restrictions related to the pandemic could have a potential impact on the number of requests for jobless benefits.
"We are hopeful as restrictions are lifted further and consumer confidence continues to return, that will continue to expand employment opportunities for those on the unemployment benefit," Burt said. "However, Utah has actively promoted policies to keep businesses open during the pandemic, so we are not likely to experience dramatic decreases in demand as Utah already has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation."
Meanwhile, applications nationwide for unemployment rose slightly last week, underscoring the pandemic's lingering restraint on the labor market recovery, according to Bloomberg news.
Initial jobless claims in regular state programs totaled 745,000 in the week ended Feb. 27, up 9,000 from the prior week, Labor Department data showed Thursday. Economists in a Bloomberg survey estimated 750,000 claims.
Weather may have also played a role. First-time applications for state benefits in Texas rose almost 17,800 from the prior week, the biggest increase among all states and territories. Jobless workers may have delayed or been unable to file benefit applications amid severe winter weather conditions in the prior week, leading to payback in this week's report.