Like the rest of the state and country, Park County is experiencing a massive surge in unemployment claims as businesses are shut down to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.
From January through mid-March, an average of about 30 local workers filed unemployment claims with the state each week. But 152 Park County workers filed claims the week of March 15-21 — and that skyrocketed to 222 new claims for the week of March 22-28, according to new data from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
It was a massive, 750% jump in just two weeks’ time. And the situation is likely to worsen, as many businesses are set to remain fully or partially closed through April.
Park County’s 374 claims over the past two weeks were among 8,395 new claims filed by workers across the state and more than 9.95 million unemployment claims across the country. Wyoming’s leisure and hospitality industry — a category that includes now-shuttered or restricted bars, restaurants and museums — appears to have been hit the hardest, accounting for more than 40% of the initial jump in new claims.
The Department of Workforce Services has been swamped with calls by the surge. Last week, the department announced citizens with last names beginning with the letters A-M should only file claims on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, while those with last names beginning with the letters N-Z should file on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday afternoons.
“Unemployment claims in Wyoming have quadrupled since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid increase in claims requires us to adjust our processes to meet demand,” said Robin Sessions Cooley, the Department of Workforce Services director.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act passed by Congress last month contains several provisions to help the unemployed. Notably, the act provides an additional 13 weeks of benefits and an additional $600 per week for eligible individuals and temporarily extended unemployment benefits to self-employed or contract employees.
“These programs are on their way, and we’re working as fast as we can to get them to the people of Wyoming quickly,” DWS Workforce Programs Administrator Holly McKamey Simoni said Monday.
The CARES Act also included billions of dollars of forgivable loans to help employers keep workers on their payrolls.
The surge in joblessness is without precedent in modern U.S. history, coming largely as a result of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In Wyoming, Gov. Mark Gordon has ordered many businesses and facilities to close to the public while President Donald Trump is asking Americans to work from home whenever possible and avoid discretionary travel, shopping trips and social visits; they’re among other “social distancing” guidelines set to last through April 30.
President Trump said Wednesday that he’s launched an “all-out war” to defeat the “horrible, horrible virus.” He called on Americans to “do their patriotic duty” in helping slow the spread of the disease.
“Nobody has ever seen anything like this. The entire world is shut down,” Trump said at a Wednesday press conference. “You go from having the most powerful economy in the world, and from other countries that are doing well, to being everything is shut down.”
“It’s very sad, but we’re going to get it [the economy] going [again]. And we’re going to be stronger than ever. I really believe that,” the president said, adding, “We’re going to have a big bounce — a very big bounce — when this has gone.”
The pandemic arrived amid a time of strong employment in the country and also in Wyoming, according to figures from the Department of Workforce Services. The statewide unemployment rate stood at just 3.5% in mid-February, and at 5% in Park County. Measuring the full economic impact of the ongoing pandemic will be something of a waiting game.
“COVID-19 has undoubtedly affected Wyoming’s economy with numerous layoffs around the state,” the department said in releasing the February numbers last week. “However, it will likely be some time before its effect will be seen in the economic data.”