The number of Idahoans filing new unemployment insurance claims each week has seen a downward trend, according to the Department of Labor—but the state is still working to address a backlog of claims filed weeks ago.

While unemployment insurance numbers suggest that some people are starting to get back to work, the unemployment rates in Idaho and Blaine County remain far higher than they would be in a typical year. The state distributed $11.2 million in unemployment benefits the week ending May 23—a decrease from the previous week, but nearly 10 times as much as in the same week in 2019.

It’s unclear how many Blaine County residents have been able to return to work since May 1, when the first phase of Gov. Brad Little’s plan to reopen Idaho began. In the Wood River Valley, where restaurant and hospitality employees make up a disproportionate amount of the workforce, workers were hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The county saw its unemployment rate shoot up to 21.7 percent in April, according to a recent report on workforce trends from the Idaho Department of Labor—the highest of any county in the state.

In a virtual AARP town hall meeting Tuesday, Gov. Brad Little told listeners that he is “fully aware” of the long-term challenges towns with tourism-based economies will likely face in the coming months—and that he worries about what might happen in Blaine County and similar parts of Idaho if state and federal assistance runs dry.

“We know that the hospitality industry is going to be under stress until we do a better job and get our arms around what we can do to lessen the risk of this pandemic,” Little said. “The unemployment benefits are there and the other [state and federal assistance] programs are also there. I just worry about how long they’re going to last.”

The comment came after one town hall participant, who identified himself as Ryan from Blaine County, asked the governor which resources might be available for Idahoans who feel the long-term economic effects of the pandemic in the months ahead.

“Is there anything available for us to keep our lives, keep our houses, keep our cars, and financially not crumble what we’ve worked so hard to earn?” the caller asked.

There are currently a number of resources available for Idahoans who have been economically impacted by the pandemic, including state unemployment benefits, various forms of federal assistance through the CARES Act and grants of up to $10,000 for Idaho small business owners.

The sudden explosion of unemployment insurance applications and the added workload of distributing federal money, however, has meant a backlog in claims at the Idaho Department of Labor—and unprecedentedly busy phone lines.

The department is working to address the backlog, Director Jani Revier told listeners in the virtual town hall. In the meantime, the state has partnered with a call center to increase the department’s capacity to answer phones, though callers are still experiencing wait times, Revier said. At some point in the future, she said, she hopes callers will be able to leave their number to have a department representative call them back.

The backlog is largely due to complications in some applications, according to Revier, which require multiple back-and-forth phone calls between department representatives, claimants and employers. The department is working on hiring new employees when possible, Revier told town hall attendees, but these new hires typically need a significant amount of training.

“Unemployment insurance is very complicated,” Revier said. “You can’t just pull someone off the street and have them be able to adjudicate an unemployment insurance claim.”

There were 4,727 initial unemployment claims filed statewide in Idaho the week ending May 23, according to the most recent state data, an 18 percent decrease from the previous week. The number of continuing claims also went down for the third week in a row, dropping 5.7 percent to 56,692 people. In Blaine County, 43 people filed for unemployment benefits for the first time during the week ending May 23, a drop from the 74 new claims filed the week before.

In the event that a second outbreak of COVID-19 occurs, as some public health experts have warned, Idaho’s response will likely vary based on region, Little told one caller in the town hall meeting.

“If we’ve got an increase in numbers and we’ve got health care capacity, there won’t be any kind of significant action needed,” Little said. “What I think is more likely is if people are concerned that they or their children or loved ones will get sick, economic activity will slow down.”

Idaho entered the third stage of its reopening plan Saturday, allowing bars and movie theaters to resume business. The fourth stage of the plan, scheduled to begin June 13, will let nightclubs and large venues such as sports stadiums reopen with social distancing protocols in place.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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