For the second straight week, Missouri saw unprecedented numbers of people out of work and seeking financial help as stay-at-home orders and voluntary social distancing forced businesses to shutter.

During what is typically the beginning of a hospitality boom as spring tourism picks up, workers in food service especially have seen the highest number of job losses.

Missourians filed 104,230 initial claims for unemployment insurance last week.

The number of claims for unemployment filed in just the past two weeks is more than 80 percent of the number filed in all of 2019, when Missourians filed 179,831 claims. Missouri reported layoffs in many sectors, including accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, and retail industries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Missouri’s situation mirrors that of every state. Unemployment claims rose across the nation, where 5.8 million people filed initial unemployment claims last week.

That’s nearly double the 2.9 million claims filed the week before, which was already the most ever recorded. Before that, the most claims filed in a week was when 695,000 in October of 1982, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics job report for March gave more insight into early job losses across the U.S., reporting that the unemployment rate had risen 0.9 percent in the month ending March 14, even before the bulk of the layoffs.

It was the highest monthly jump since January 1975, and the bureau estimated it could have been as high as 1.9 percent if people who were temporarily laid off had marked themselves as unemployed in the bureau’s household survey.

Food service workers saw the most jobs lost, accounting for about 417,000 of the 701,000 jobs cut from company payrolls, according to the bureau’s survey of businesses.

Many workers also saw hours cut, as 1.2 million more people were working part time because of business conditions compared to February, the household survey estimated.

People working for a lower wage were laid off more. That’s typical in a recession, where the last person hired will often be the first fired, Bureau Regional Economist Cheryl Abbot said.

“Lower-wage workers in all industries are going to be the ones laid off,” she said.

Some employers hiring

In Missouri, there are far fewer jobs available than there were before COVID-19 started affecting the state, but there are some jobs.

In the past week, 37 different employers have posted a total of 77 jobs on the state’s online job board. In total, there are about 500 job listings there, though many were posted before businesses started to see the impact of COVID-19.

Mardy Leathers, director of the Missouri Office of Workforce Development, said, “We’re seeing that shift to delivery jobs, logistics, distribution, there’s an opportunity for a lot of IT work as people are virtualizing their systems."

Mercy Health, Price Cutter, the Missouri Veteran’s Commission, American Outdoor Brands and the University of Missouri are among the employers who posted jobs in the past week, Leathers said.

He’s also hearing from employers looking for workers in health care, warehousing, and retail — especially grocery stores and other stores that sell food, including Walmart and Dollar Tree, he said. Cargill is hiring workers for it’s security line because it needs to take the temperature of every employee coming into work, Leathers said.

The workforce development office has quickly shifted its 29 in-person job centers into call centers, where staff answer questions and guide callers over the phone to limit person-to-person contact. The phone number is 888-728-5627.

There are plenty of online job boards, including Monster and Indeed, where people can search for openings on their own. The job centers provide a “concierge” service to walk people through everything from filing an unemployment claim and accessing other federal benefits, to finding job training programs, to helping match employers and potential employees for interviews, Leathers said.

The Missouri Department of Labor had already shifted staff from across the department to handle the increase in claims, and hired temporary workers this week to help process those claims. The department has also increased server capacity for its online filing system, which it says is the best way for people to file their claims.

Federal guidance

Soon, more people could be eligible for unemployment benefits. The department is waiting for federal guidance on changes the relief bill Congress passed last week made to unemployment insurance, including a $600 weekly pandemic unemployment compensation on top of the normal unemployment insurance amount provided by the state.

It will also establish a separate pandemic unemployment assistance program for people not eligible for regular benefits, including contractors, people who are self-employed and agricultural workers.

Missouri Department of Labor spokeswoman Delores Rose said the state signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor on Sunday that made the $600 supplement effective March 29, and this week’s amount will be paid retroactively after the federal government issues guidance and releases the funds. The department expects that guidance soon. It also said people should check the department's website for answers to frequently asked questions and updates on changes to the unemployment insurance program.

Of the unemployment claims filed in Missouri last week, more than 89,000 were marked as COVID-19 related job losses, according to a statement from the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. That means that about 15,230 claims filed last week were not marked as being related to COVID-19. That number alone is nearly four times the number of claims filed the week before the spike driven by COVID-related layoffs and furloughs.

The distinction is important because people who are unemployed as a result of COVID-19, or a temporary layoff with a recall date within eight weeks, are not required to do the same weekly work search activities as those laid off for other reasons. The unemployment claim form includes a “COVID-19” box that anyone laid off as a result of the virus should check to make sure they’re exempt from that requirement.

Rose said some people may have misreported that, and that the department will work with anyone who did to make a correction. Rose said work search activities could include taking online training or classes to work on their skill sets, in addition to looking for jobs.

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