West Virginia unemployment filings blow past 90,000

West Virginia has been slammed with more than 90,000 initial unemployment claims as businesses shut down and shed employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

To demonstrate the fast and furious pace of the filings, state Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch described more than 80,000 filings this morning on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

An hour later, Gov. Jim Justice described about 90,000 unemployment filings during a daily news briefing.

When MetroNews sought clarity from Workforce West Virginia, the reply was, “Due to the continual increase, you are correct in stating “more than 90,000” in March.

A normal month of initial unemployment claims in West Virginia is about 5,000.

The unemployment onslaught, shuttered businesses and an anticipated state revenue crater are combining for unprecedented economic concerns.

John Deskins

“My take is, we are probably on the cusp of the deepest recession we have seen in a long, long time,” said economist John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“It’s going to be a tough recession, and it has come on so incredibly fast. I’m not an absolute expert on economic history, but I can’t think of a recession that has hit as quickly as this has hit — especially with the severity that we’re expecting.”

The heavy numbers are, on one level, predictable because of the government orders for many sectors to shut down and for “non-essential” workers to stay home.

On another level, that surge of jobless claims is jaw-dropping.

“It just blows my mind as well,” Gaunch said on “Talkline.”

“I’ve never experienced anything like this. At my age, I’ve seen a lot. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

To put the number in context, policy analyst Sean O’Leary with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy noted, in February there were a total of 39,700 unemployed West Virginians, although not all were collecting unemployment.

West Virginia’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent at the end of February.

Ed Gaunch

Gaunch agreed that 15 percent is about what the current unemployment rate would be now.

“I’ve got to be honest,” he said, “we probably haven’t peaked yet.”

Gaunch confirmed that WorkForce West Virginia is running behind on processing that many claims and is aiming to hire some more people to help. Those filing claims are asked to navigate to uc.workforcewv.org, although there is a note there acknowledging intermittent disruptions and temporary outages.

West Virginia’s unemployment rate hit a historic high of 18.8 percent in 1983.

“Other than that, you have to go back to the Great Depression to see an unemployment rate this high,” Deskins said.

Deskins said it is hard to predict what happens next.

“This is the most uncertainty we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “On the negative, this is looking to be a very deep recession in terms of the job loss and the rise of unemployment.”

But Deskins has some hope for a relatively quick recovery.

“Because the cause of the recession is so clear and well-defined once we go back to work — once this virus scare is over with — I think we have the potential for a quick recovery,” he said. “But we don’t know.”

During a Wednesday morning news briefing, Governor Justice announced that state general revenue collections for March exceeded estimates.

“Now March, at a time when the whole world is blowing up, came in $12.9 million above estimate,” he said.

“This is really good news, and I wish we could have reported it as the headline news.”

He recognized that won’t be the case at the end of the current month, following all the layoffs and business disruption.

Justice suggested West Virginia might have to use Rainy Day funds as a stopgap and also expressed hope that a federal relief package will provide sufficient financial help.

“Right now I feel confident there will be enough back stop coming from the federal government and bridge us without any significant harm,” Justice said.

March FY20 (Text)

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