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Iowa Seeing 'Unprecedented' Unemployment Claims As COVID-19 Spreads

Joyce Russell
IPR file
Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend

The head of Iowa’s agency that handles unemployment insurance said Friday they are seeing an “unprecedented” number of unemployment claims as Iowans get laid off or are unable to work because of COVID-19.

“It’s pretty staggering to see the number of claims that we’re receiving,” said Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend. “Essentially, what we’re receiving on a daily basis is what we would receive in a busy month.” 

According to the governor’s office, the state is expected to release February unemployment numbers next Friday, and March numbers will come out in the third week of April.

Iowa’s unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in January, tied for 10th lowest in the country. The U.S. unemployment rate was 3.6 percent in January.

Townsend said 162 workforce development employees who work in other areas of the agency are being re-trained to take calls about unemployment insurance to help with long wait times.

The state is granting unemployment benefits and relaxing rules for people laid off because of COVID-19, people who can’t work because they’re self-isolating or because they are caring for children during school closures.

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday ordered all bars and restaurants to close to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, and the Iowa Restaurant Association estimated as many as 80,000 workers from the industry may lose their jobs.

Townsend noted some Iowa businesses, like Hy-Vee, are still hiring. 

The state is expected to roll out a financial relief grant program for hospitality operators including bars and restaurants next week.

Some states, including Illinois, have issued a “shelter-in-place” order to restrict movement of everyone except workers deemed essential like health care providers, first responders and grocery store employees.

Reynolds said Friday she is not considering that. She said she has been basing her decisions on data from the Iowa Department of Public Health and the CDC, as well as taking into account what’s happening in other states.

“I don’t know the decisions and the numbers—every governor is looking at their own data. They’re doing a similar process that I’m doing here in Iowa,” Reynolds said. “So they’re making the decisions based on the information that they’re receiving and that’s what we’re doing too.”

Reynolds is encouraging Iowans to do social distancing, stay home when sick, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash hands frequently.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 45 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, and Iowa had the supplies to test about 620 people. Reynolds said the state is working every day to expand testing capacity. 

Reynolds did not say how many ventilators the state has when asked by IPR. She said the state is requesting additional ventilators from the federal government and pursuing private sector options.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter