unemployment STOCK

CHEYENNE – Over the course of two weeks, Wyoming’s initial unemployment claims skyrocketed more than 800%, going from 509 initial claims for the week of March 14 to 4,652 for the week of March 28.

The number of initial claims represents the number of residents who file unemployment for the first time, and in Laramie County, the increase was even greater. Jumping from 55 claims two weeks ago to 644 for the week of March 28, Laramie County’s initial claims rose 1,070%, according to data from the Department of Workforce Services.

Under normal circumstances, the economy has booms and busts, where employment fluctuates, like riding a bike up and down hills, according to UW economist Robert Godby.

But now, “It’s like our economy hit a brick wall,” he said.

The layoffs and hour reductions seen across the state aren’t the result of an economic slowdown, but rather from the global health pandemic of COVID-19. And while Wyoming’s unemployment numbers are shocking, the rest of the nation is faring much worse.

Wyoming’s unemployment claims increased about nine times the normal levels by the end of March, while the total claims in the U.S. have risen 30 times the level normally seen. The data for the week ending March 28 is also likely to increase as the state processes claimants that require wage information from other states.

“In one week, we’ve had as many people lose their job as what took three months in the worst recession to date after World War II,” Godby said.

According to both Godby and Wenlin Liu, chief economist at the state’s Economic Analysis Division, the difference between Wyoming and the rest of the country is largely due to the lack of a stay-at-home order here.

“For economic reasons, the shelter-in-place order makes a big difference,” Liu said.

A number of businesses in the state are allowed to remain open and use delivery and carryout. But in states with stay-at-home orders, business has slowed significantly, impacting those local economies more than what’s happening in Wyoming.

However, a problem in the Cowboy State is whether people are truly following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing and other preventative measures.

“In Wyoming, it could get significantly worse – that really is going to depend on the rate of spread,” Godby said. “Unfortunately, if people won’t abide by these measures, (Gov. Mark Gordon) will have to enact more stringent measures.”

And while having no statewide shelter-in-place order gives the economy more breathing room in the short term, Godby said, “If we don’t slow down the infection, the cost will be even greater.”

Although Wyoming’s unemployment data is better than the national average, a survey from the University of Wyoming’s Survey and Analysis Center found that more than half the state’s residents or immediate family members have already seen reductions in work hours or pay due to the coronavirus’ spread.

But even with stark increases in the demand for unemployment services, Wyoming Workforce Services Communication Manager Ty Stockton said the department has enough financial resources for those who need it. The department’s funds were in a solid place to begin with, and assistance from the federal government’s groundbreaking relief package will help even more.

“That will take a lot of the burden off of it,” Stockton said. “We’re in good shape for awhile.”

The financial resources may be plenty, but Workforce Services has had to adapt its application model to process claims more efficiently.

Now, for both online and over-the-phone applications, those with last names beginning with the letters A through M should file their claims Monday, Wednesday or before noon Friday. Those with last names beginning with N through Z should file Tuesday, Thursday or after noon Friday.

According to Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce CEO Dale Steenbergen, Laramie County businesses and employees have seen hour cuts and reductions “in a sprinkling across the board.”

“The ones that we are hearing from the most, some of them are what you’d expect – the restaurants and hotels,” Steenbergen said. “There’s a ton of folks coming out of those areas.”

The chamber has teamed up with a number of organizations in Cheyenne to create a job board for residents who need work and a relief fund for residents who might be without pay. Steenbergen also said they’re working to make sure industries like construction and energy that “can really add fire to the economy” have the resources and legislation they need to ramp up work and production as quickly as possible once the situation calms down.

Steenbergen said the longer this goes on, the harder it will get, which is why it’s important to remember the good things in life and in Cheyenne.

“Our message from the Chamber is this – no matter how bad it gets, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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