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Unemployment Claims Show Initial Impact of COVID-19 Shutdowns

Restaurants are no longer serving dine-in meals, like Nosh in Des Moines. They are providing carry out and to-go meals with limited hours.
John Pemble
IPR file photo
Restaurants are no longer serving dine-in meals, like Nosh in Des Moines. They are providing carry out and to-go meals with limited hours.

The number of unemployment claims in Iowa spiked last week as businesses closed their doors to help slow the coronavirus outbreak. In one week, ending Saturday, 41,890 Iowa workers filed new unemployment claims – including those who work in Iowa but live out of state.

The biggest share of claims, 13,364, came from the sector that includes bars and restaurants which were ordered to close on March 17. Gov. Kim Reynolds said she’s aware that choice came with a downside for workers.

“These are people that are impacted based on decisions we made at the state level and we want to be sure we’re doing everything we can, in conjunction with our federal partners, to get them back up and going and get our economy cranking again,” Reynolds said at a press conference Thursday.

Reynolds said a federal relief package is expected to bring some relief. The proposal would add 13 weeks to the usual period people can receive unemployment assistance and would increase the weekly payment by $600. It would also cover independent contractors and others who normally aren’t eligible.

As more people file for unemployment, Iowa Workforce Development is struggling to keep up. Even with 250 staffers dedicated to answering calls related to unemployment claims, director Beth Townsend said the department was overwhelmed by the volume of claims.

“We know there will be long waits from the resulting surge that we’ve seen in claims and we ask everyone to be patient and to show us grace,” Townsend said. “We are certainly here to help. It just may take us a little bit longer to get to you, but we will get to you and we will help."

Townsend said temporary workers will start helping field unemployment calls on Monday.

More closures underway

As part of the state’s response to the spread of COVID-19, Reynolds is ordering more businesses to close. On top of restaurants, bars and barber shops the latest action adds retail stores selling books, clothing, furniture and other household products. It does not include grocery stores. The new closures take effect 10 p.m. Thursday. The order will continue until at least April 7.

Reynolds said people should continue to stay home if they can, although she is not enacting a shelter-in-place order as some other governors have done.

“I think we have to be responsible,” Reynolds said. “We are Iowans. I shouldn’t have to issue an order to say that you need to be responsible and stay home if you’re not sick.”

The state is also suspending all dental procedures and elective surgeries for the duration of the crisis unless a person’s health is at risk. Reynolds said it will help health officials direct more personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields to the hospitals and clinics that need it most.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa