Montana unemployment claims surge as result of coronavirus
AP

Montana unemployment claims surge as result of coronavirus

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's unemployment claims are surging as some businesses have closed and others have reduced services due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Montana received just over 14,000 applications for unemployment benefits in the week ending March 21, a nearly 1,700% increase over the previous week and a 1,917% increase over the same week a year ago, officials said Thursday.

The increase overwhelmed the Department of Labor and Industry's online application system.

“We had interruptions this weekend that were fairly substantial and frustrating for Montanans,” said Brenda Nordlund, acting commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry. Some staffers worked 36 hours straight to stabilize the website, she said.

“The amount of technical work we have done to support this historic level of claims is truly remarkable,” she said.

The unemployment numbers were released the day after the U.S. Senate passed a $2 trillion economic relief deal, which would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and help small businesses pay employees who are forced to stay home. The U.S. House must still pass the bill.

The stimulus package includes an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits and benefits for Montanans who aren't covered under traditional unemployment, Nordlund said. Her office is still learning the details and she asked people to be patient as they include the new stimulus package.

She also noted that if people have trouble with the website or reaching someone on the phone, the agency has the ability to back-date claims and payments.

“We are behind you, we want to serve you, but we can't go from zero to 60 overnight,” she said. “We'll get there and folks will be paid whatever they are entitled to under this new package.”

Nationally, 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week. the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday.

According to data provided by Montana's Department of Labor and Industry, an average of 52 people a day filed new unemployment claims from March 3 to March 15. A significant increase in claims began March 16, three days after the state's first coronavirus cases were confirmed.

From March 16 to March 24 the average number of daily new claims rose to 1,995, including a high of 3,346 on March 20. That day, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the closure of businesses where people congregate, including gyms and theaters and restricted on-premise food and drink consumption at restaurants and bars.

The total new unemployment claims from March 16-24 was nearly 18,000, the state agency reported.

In January, the state's seasonally adjusted unemployment numbers listed 18,678 people as being unemployed in Montana.

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