SHERIDAN — As far as unemployment claims in the state, the worst may have passed, according to Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Director Robin Cooley.
The Wyoming Legislature Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee addressed COVID-19 issues Friday morning, including agency response from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services — one “tip of the spear” helping the state trudge through the pandemic, Chairman Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, said.
The purpose of the meeting was to brief the committee on agency response since new bills passed through special session, which produced new state agency directives. Regular after-action reports from agencies will be available with detailed information about COVID-19 response in August, Wilson said.
Cooley updated the committee on a new virtual town hall series, which informs the public as to how to submit unemployment claims. Wyoming’s unemployment spiked from 3.8% in March to 9.2% in April, though the state still hosts the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
Nearly 3,500 new unemployment insurance claims were filed last week statewide, along with more than twice as many renewed claims. Cooley said the department is seeing an “evening off” of filed claims but numbers are not declining yet. About 10% of the state’s workforce is unemployed as of April.
Workforce Services’ new focus is supplying an additional 13 weeks of unemployment assistance for claimants quickly, she said. The department is also collaborating with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to provide guidance for bringing employees back into the workplace safely.
Sheridan County’s unemployment rate nearly doubled from March to April, from an already comparably high 4.5% to 8.5% — up from 3.3% in 2019.
Cooley acknowledged recent fraud issues through the department, including 152 ID theft claims since May 13. Most fraud situations have been stopped in collaboration with banks and monitored payments — monetary loss averages $18,000, she said.
As staff continue to focus on fraud monitoring, COVID-related discrimination claims and resolving minor technical issues, Cooley said the next phase for Workforce Services will turn to reemployment.
Workforce program teams applied for an emergency dislocated worker grant of $200,000 — a sum which will be combined with other funding streams — to kick off assistance for those furloughed during the pandemic, missed work to care for family or could not appropriately distance at work and stayed home.
State and federal unemployment trust funds remain “healthy” with $51 million of untouched money in the state fund and $350 million in the federal fund, Cooley said.
Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, questioned how long the state can continue along its current path, depending on May unemployment projections. Clem attributed Wyoming’s strength compared to other states to Gov. Mark Gordon’s resistance to implementing a stay at home order early on in the pandemic.
While a reliable “burn rate” has yet to be determined, Cooley said initial numbers indicate the state can continue sustainably on current projections for several years.
Both renewed and new initial claims have plateaued since March, when the department saw a sharp influx in unemployment benefit claims, Cooley said.
“It has been plateaued now for the past two weeks, which does give me a level of comfort that maybe we’ve seen — for unemployment purposes — we’ve seen the worst of it and now we’re coming down just a bit with those numbers,” Cooley said.