Phone lines are still jammed as representatives from the state’s unemployment office work to secure benefits for laid-off Wyoming workers.
During the week ending April 25, 38 workers in Johnson County filed an initial claim for unemployment insurance. There were also 208 continued claims in the county. Those 246 initial and continuing claims are triple the number of claims in the county for the week ending March 21, when there were 81 claims.
Statewide, the number of unemployment insurance claims has grown to over 20,000. That’s seven times more people seeking unemployment insurance as during the same week of 2019.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began in Wyoming, workers in the state have received more than $42 million in unemployment insurance benefits from a combination of federal emergency aid and the state unemployment insurance fund, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
“The Department of Workforce Services’ Unemployment Insurance Division is working around the clock to get benefits to those who have been unable to work due to the coronavirus,” said Holly McKamey Simoni, Workforce Programs Administrator for the agency.
The CARES Act benefits require additional programming of the agency’s UI system, an effort that is ongoing, Simoni said.
“Right now our priority is getting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits to self-employed, independent contractors, gig economy workers, and others not normally eligible for UI benefits. We understand the urgency for folks, and we are working diligently to get benefits paid as quickly as possible,” Simoni said.
The leisure and hospitality industry has been hardest hit, with the sector shedding over 5,200 jobs from the last week of March through the last week of April.
Kelly Drog had worked as a cook at a local restaurant for a decade before she was laid off.
“I knew, of course, the restaurants were going to be one of the first ones to shut down,” she said. “There just isn’t anything to do – the takeout orders were slow. There’s really nothing else they could do.”
Now Drog has joined the ranks of those waiting to learn whether their claim for unemployment benefits will be accepted.
“I was having a hard time with my application and am waiting to hear back,” she said.
Drog said her husband was laid off from his job at the recycling center about a week before her layoff.
“My husband’s been laid off as well. He’s getting unemployment already – thank God,” she said.
In addition to the volume of calls its staff are fielding right now, the Department of Workforce Services is rolling out additional federal benefits through the CARES Act. According to Workforce Services, Under the CARES Act, many people who might not traditionally qualify for unemployment insurance compensation may qualify for benefits – including gig workers (like Uber drivers) and the self-employed. The CARES Act also provides an emergency benefit of $600 per week through July 26. Because that is an entirely new program, Workforce Services had to have a method for delivery. The agency had hoped to release those funds by the first week of May. As of May 5, the funds had not been released.
Drog hasn’t applied for jobs elsewhere – there is no one else in town she would want to work for, she said. So, she’s waiting for the restaurant business to pick up again.
“I always think things will work out OK,” she said. “Things always have a way of working out.”