SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — As the number of new Utah residents claiming unemployment slowed for a fourth consecutive week, state officials warned workers Thursday that they must accept offers to return to work or risk losing state and federal jobless benefits.
The message delivered by Department of Workforce Services Executive Director Jon Pierpont came one day before restaurants, gyms and salons can begin reopening Friday.
People who fail to report a “suitable offer” to return to work and stay on unemployment may be forced to pay back funds that have been higher than normal during the COVID-19 pandemic because of additional $600-a-week checks from the U.S. government.
“Unemployment benefits can serve as an important and helpful tool for dialing the economy back up, but they must be used correctly,” Pierpont said.
Officials in several states including Iowa and Oklahoma have issued similar warnings this week that workers who refuse to return to work will fall under a category known as voluntary termination and become ineligible for unemployment.
Gov. Gary Herbert acknowledged he’s concerned that some people might not want to look for work because they’re making decent money on the double unemployment benefits from the state and federal government during the pandemic.
Utah paid out $22.6 million in state benefits last week and distributed $40.4 million in federal stimulus funds, the figures show.
“It doesn’t take probably a lot of rocket science to figure if you’re making more money on unemployment maybe you are not quite as desperate to go back to work,” Herbert said. “We’ll just have to live through that. I think most people want to work.”
Labor groups have demanded safe working conditions and in some states requested that unemployment rules be changed to allow people with preexisting health conditions to decline job offers and still receive unemployment.
Nearly 12,000 Utah residents claimed unemployment in the week ending April 25, a 40% decline from the previous week and far less than the pandemic peak of 33,000 claims March 29-April 4, state figures released Thursday show.
Last week’s total was still historically high. The claims filed each of the past six weeks were more than any single week on record, including during the height of the Great Recession in 2009 when the high was about 5,000 in one week, state figures showed.
A total of nearly 137,000 people have requested unemployment since March 15 as the pandemic forced businesses to close. The staggering figure easily surpassed yearly totals for each of the last five years when the state averaged about 73,000 claims a year, state figures show.
Utah’s economic woes mirror national trends: 30 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment in that same six week span.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe life-threatening illness, including pneumonia, and death.
In Utah, there have been 46 confirmed deaths and nearly 4,700 confirmed cases. Utah has the fourth-lowest rate of confirmed deaths per 100,000 people among states and the sixth-highest rate of people tested per 1,000, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
In other coronavirus developments:
— Four F-35 jets from the Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah did a flyover Thursday to thank health care workers and first-responders.
— Bryce Canyon National Park said Thursday it will reopen parts of the park on May 6. All five of Utah’s national parks were closed as the pandemic spread. But the U.S. Interior Department said last week that parks will begin reopening soon. Zion National Park officials say plans are being made to reopen.
— One of Utah’s longest-running parades scheduled for July 24 to celebrate the state’s Mormon heritage at Pioneer Day has been canceled. Days of ’47 Parade officials say the parade and accompanying rodeo, concert, pageant and other events were all postponed. The celebration is one of the state’s oldest dating back to 1847.
— The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will begin sending out missionaries who were brought home from foreign countries to new assignments in their home countries. The church said Thursday that new mission assignments are going out, and some young people in the United States and Canada will leave starting next week. The Utah-based faith sent thousands of young missionaries to their home countries to self-isolate as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world. It’s unknown how long the young people will spend in the new assignments. Male missionaries normally serve two years while women serve 18 months.