Jobless claims soar as Iowa closes more retail businesses
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Unemployment claims rose nearly nineteenfold in Iowa last week as the coronavirus pandemic left entire sectors of the economy in tatters, officials reported Thursday hours before Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered more nonessential businesses to close.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that initial claims for jobless benefits in Iowa surged to 41,890 in the week that ended March 21. That was up from 2,229 the week prior — a historic spike that laid bare the virus' sudden economic impact and mirrored the bigger picture.
The national figure surged to a record 3.3 million claims, as people were laid off as non-essential businesses closed or scaled down as part of the effort to slow the spread of the disease.
On a day the state recorded its biggest daily jump in COVID-19 cases, Reynolds announced that she had expanded an earlier order closing businesses to include stores that sell furniture, books, clothing, shoes, jewelry and other items. The closures — which already included bars, dine-in restaurants, theaters, casinos and more — will last until at least April 7, she said. Schools will remain closed until April 13.
Reynolds also ordered dentists to stop performing all but emergency work and other health care providers to halt nonessential surgeries and procedures. Those steps were designed to preserve the personal protective equipment that health care workers need to treat virus patients.
Reynolds also ordered hospitals, nursing homes and other health facilities to screen their employees at the beginning of their shifts. Those who have symptoms such as fevers should be told to stay home, she said.
The governor said for the first time that counties do not have the legal authority to issue their own stay-at-home orders. She previously said they could, and multiple counties had been considering that step. Reynolds has not issued a statewide order, saying the closures and voluntary social distancing efforts may be enough.
The number of confirmed Iowa cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, jumped Thursday to 179, which was an increase of 34 and the biggest daily jump yet for the state. One Iowa patient has died.
For most, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Iowa Workforce Development reported that about one-third of last week's claims for jobless benefits came from workers in the accommodation and food services industries. Other came from the health care, education and retail sectors.
The Iowa Restaurant Association said that a survey of 670 bars and restaurants found that more than four out of five had laid off workers. Even restaurants that have remained open for carryout service have still laid off up to 90% of their employees, the association said.
The owners who were surveyed projected that their March revenues would plummet by 84% compared with a year earlier, the association said.
“The picture is grim,” said association CEO Jessica Dunker. “Our initial numbers indicate that for as many as 20% of our operators, there may be no coming back.”
For perspective on the number of unemployment claims filed, 41,000 is roughly the population of Cedar Falls, one of Iowa's 15 largest cities.
Iowa Workforce Development Beth Towsend said her agency managed to process all of the claims despite the surge, paying out more than $10 million in benefits. She asked the public to be patient and seek answers online first before calling for help.
Wait times at the state's customer service phone center have been longer than normal due to an unprecedented level of calls being answered by 250 staffers, Townsend said.
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