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Montana unemployment claims jump as thousands file amid pandemic closures

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Posted at 10:24 AM, Mar 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-21 12:24:22-04

The number of unemployment claims in the state of Montana shot up dramatically this week as the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes the economic landscape.

According to figures provided Friday to the Missoula Current, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry saw 2,830 new unemployment claims on Wednesday alone.

In comparison, the prior Wednesday saw just 57 new claims.

“I can confirm that we’ve seen a significant increase in new claims and claim reactivations this week,” said DOL public information officer Lauren Lewis. “It’s substantially higher than our usual claim numbers.”

Up through Sunday, March 15, the number of unemployment claims filed in the state never exceeded 98 on any given day, and the number of reactivations remained low. At the time, the state’s unemployment rate hovered at around 3.5%.

But on Monday, March 16, health officials in several urban counties in Montana, including Missoula, Gallatin and Silver-Bow, began ordering bars and restaurants to close to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

State figures show the number of new unemployment claims jumped that day to 720. On Tuesday, they climbed to 1,853 followed by 2,830 claims on Wednesday, the last day the figures were available.

“At the department right now, our priority is ensuring the stability of our unemployment insurance claims portal and ensuring Montanans can access the portal to receive the benefits they need at this time,” said Lewis. “We are diligently working to process the claims from workers impacted by business closures.”

Amid the quickly changing landscape, Gov. Steve Bullock this week issued new emergency rules to make it easier for laid-off workers to access unemployment benefits, including a waiver to the one-week period before benefits kick in.

On Friday, the governor also issued a directive calling on all bars, restaurants, casinos and gyms to close statewide, not just in the urban counties. The move was enacted to slow the spread of the virus, which has now been confirmed in six Montana counties.

The public-safety measure will likely lead to a greater number of Montana workers filing for unemployment.

“That’s not something I can really comment on,” said Lewis. “We’re seeing an influx, and our unemployment insurance system is flexible and can support our customer needs moving forward.”

Lewis said other measures are being discussed to more widely share Montana’s economic picture as the pandemic plays out.

“There are discussions on creating a website to put up some economic indicators related to COVID-19, but that’s still in the discussion phase,” she said.