The number of Alaskans filing for unemployment benefits skyrocketed in the first reporting period that includes the widespread business closures ordered due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Initial jobless claims hit 13,774 for the week ending March 21.
That’s up from 7,847 a week earlier, already an unprecedented level, said Lennon Weller, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“It’s pretty remarkable," Weller said. “This is something we’ve never seen.”
State and municipal leaders began ordering widespread shutdowns of businesses on March 16, though the economy had previously started to struggle as people began staying home and canceled summer travel plans.
Before the economic fallout hit Alaska, initial weekly claims had hovered around 1,000 for months, as the Alaska economy slipped out of recession.
The state’s unemployment insurance program is taking an “unprecedented” number of calls, said Tamika Ledbetter, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Every available staff member is taking calls in a system that can handle 250 calls at a time, she said.
She encouraged people to apply online if possible.
“What I would encourage you to do, if you want to speak to a live person, that’s going to be a little difficult,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “But if you call our main number, we are taking those names and we are actually calling you back. We prefer online, but if you need to call, that’s OK.”
To try to stave off a national depression, Congress recently passed a $2 trillion rescue bill as U.S. jobless claims shot to record levels. The law, along with state efforts, has expanded benefits sharply to help people forced out of work.
The numbers reported for the last two weeks far exceed the previous record high for the number of initial jobless claims in Alaska, seen during the Great Recession at 4,901 claims in January 2010.
The newest high is about 2.8 times higher.