HELENA — New filings for unemployment benefits in Montana skyrocketed to 23,665 people in the last seven days — and that came on top of almost 17,000 from the week before.
The trajectory of Montanans filing for unemployment has followed the national trend, which has seen 10 million people file in the past two weeks, ending last Saturday.
The dramatic increase has come in the wake of an economic meltdown brought on by the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) as thousands of businesses close their doors and Montanans are at a stay-at-home order issued by Governor Steve Bullock. Businesses deemed essential can remain open, but with few people venturing out of their homes, business revenue has declined, with many companies furloughing or laying off workers.
The biggest day for new jobless benefit filings in Montana this year was last Friday, when nearly 5,000 people filed. The rate hasn’t been much lower this week, ranging from 3,400 to 4,000 a day, Monday through Wednesday. Just a month ago, new unemployment-benefit filings for a week in Montana were less than 100.
The Montana Department of Labor & Industry announced on Thursday that more than 35,000 payments were distributed from March 23 through April 1. “This number shows our ability to make adjustments to support our customer needs and the expansion of UI eligibility moving forward,” said Brenda Nordlund, the acting commissioner of the agency. “I want to encourage all Montanans with UI questions to first visit our website as most questions can be answered by reviewing the wide range of information posted on our COVID-19 resource guide. While our call volume is high, there are still options for Montanans with UI questions.”
Between March 23 and April 1. DLI’s unemployment phone line received 473,829 phone calls. The agency said in a news release: "This unprecedented volume of calls has led to difficulties for some Montanans to access answers to their specific questions. To help alleviate this level of call volume, DLI has trained 70 Job Service and Employment Relations employees to assist with commonly asked phone inquiries, including PIN resets, security word, and job attachment questions. Additionally, DLI is in the process of reassigning other current agency employees and bringing back retired staff members with UI experience."
Perhaps the only good news is that benefits will be increasing, and self-employed people out of work will be eligible for the benefits. Both of those changes are contained in the massive $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed last weekend by Congress, in response to the coronavirus-related economic slowdown.
State Labor Department officials said they’re waiting for guidance from the U.S. Labor Department before implementing those changes. However, the department has said the benefit-changes will be back-dated to either March 15 or March 23.
Under current law, unemployed workers get a percentage of their last job's wages, and the maximum weekly benefit is $552. The federal benefits will add $600 a week to whatever benefit Montana workers would already get. The state website says:
- Do I need to apply to receive the additional $600 per week on my unemployment claim? A: If you have already filed a claim that is in process or have filed a claim and are currently receiving benefits, you do not need to take any action to receive the additional $600 per week. As U.S. DOL provides federal guidance on those payments, you will be issued those payments as they become available.
The state, under emergency rules, also is waiving the typical one-week wait period before claimants start receiving benefits and not required Covid-19-related claimants to report job searches.
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