West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch says 41,549 initial unemployment claims have been processed in the past week.

Those thousands of West Virginians lost their jobs as restaurants, bars, casinos, many retailers and other employers shut their doors as a precaution to slow the spread of coronavirus.

A typical week in March any other recent year would have shown a little more than a thousand claims. The total number of claims for the week ending March 7, just a couple of weeks ago, was 865.

The spike is a record, now set in historically uncertain times.

Brian Lego

“Consistent data go back to 1986, I believe, and there’s nothing close to that,” said Brian Lego, an economist with West Virginia University.

The next largest figure of initial unemployment claim during those years was the week ending Jan 2, 1999, at 5,877.

The highest number in the past decade or so was 5,445 in January, 2010.

The unemployment wave aligns with eye-popping national statistics that came out today showing 3.3 million unemployment filings as the country halts activity because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those totals also follow U.S. Senate approval of a broad-ranging relief bill that would raise unemployment checks by $600 a week while also extending the eligibility period to 39 weeks.

Office of the Governor

Gov. Jim Justice

The $2 trillion federal relief — which also includes aid for small businesses, distressed companies, medical providers and state governments — prompted Gov. Jim Justice to express optimism during a press briefing on Thursday afternoon.

“From an economic standpoint, I have said it from Day 1, that is really in my wheelhouse from the standpoint of the businessperson I am,” Justice said, advocating for the relief package.

“There’s going to be an incredible amount of dollars that are going to flow to West Virginia.”

Ed Gaunch

Gaunch said the filings with Workforce West Virginia also include 1,000 low-earnings claims for those who are on an employer’s payroll, but the employer cannot provide full-time work.

Gaunch directed people filing claims to go online although he acknowledged Workforce West Virginia could be slowed by the surge of filings.

And Gaunch said the Development Office is gearing up to help employees and businesses draw down federal benefits.

Early estimates suggested the State of West Virginia might draw down $1.2 billion from the federal government to compensate for the direct costs of responding to the coronavirus.

Justice said that will help the state meet its expenses. He announced yesterday his direction to postpone state income tax filing deadlines until July 15.

“We’ve got all kinds of cannonballs that have blown into our budget,” Justice said.

He suggested the state might have to use money from the Rainy Day Fund to get by until federal relief money is available.

“My judgment is we’re going to be just fine, even in the year we’re in,” he said.