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Jobless claims accelerate rapidly due to virus

FALLS CHURCH (AP) Nearly 115,000 Virginians filed for unemployment benefits last week, more than doubling the already unprecedented figures from the previous week as the coronavirus continues to stall economic activity.

The jobless claims over the last two weeks now equal those filed over a full three months during the worst stretch of the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

The numbers released April 2 by the Labor Department show that 114,104 Virginians filed jobless claims in the week ending March 28. That more than doubles the 46,277 claims filed the week ending March 21.

In the month prior to impact from the coronavirus, jobless claims in Virginia averaged around 2,600.

The volume of claims is overwhelming the Virginia Employment Commission, which is charged with processing the claims. Callers to a toll-free number set up to process claims either can’t get through or wait for hours on hold. Applicants are urged to file their claims online, but that system is showing strains as well. A message on the employment commission’s website assures applicants that their claims are being processed even though the system is not providing confirmation of a submitted claim as it’s supposed to.

The commission says it’s also in the midst of revamping its online form to try to conform the more liberal filing rules approved by Congress as part of a $2 trillion stimulus package.

Hannah Vester, 24, of Arlington, said she filed a claim over a week ago after getting laid off from a restaurant job in Washington, D.C., but she can’t tell whether the claim is being processed. She had been counting on the job to tide her over until she started a planned Peace Corps assignment in Uganda in June. Now the restaurant job is gone and the Peace Corps assignment is on hold indefinitely.

She said if she made a mistake in filing her claim, “it wasn’t for a lack of trying.” The online application form is “very much not user friendly. There’s a lot of words, and no clear direction” on navigating the process.

“All my friends are having the same problem,” she said.

The huge spike in jobless claims largely mirrors the national trend, where roughly 10 million people have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks.

Jeannette Chapman, an economist at George Mason University, said that the regional economy around Washington, D.C., including northern Virginia, should expect to see essentially the same type of recession as the rest of the country.

In past economic cycles, the region’s heavy reliance on government jobs has insulated the region from the worst of a recession. In some cases, she said, like the federal budget battles and sequestration of 2013 and 2014, restrictions on federal spending caused a mild recession in the region while the rest of the country was growing.

In this case, though, the government jobs provide little insulation, she said, because while federal workers may still have their jobs, they are largely working from home and unable to spend money because they are staying at home.

Chapman discussed the results of a study she conducted on the virus’s impact on the regional economy at an April 2 online conference sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

She said that predicting what happens in this cycle is complicated by the fact the economic crisis in unprecedented because it is driven largely by a public-health crisis.

In Virginia, the numbers released by the state health department April 2 show more than 1,700 people have tested positive for coronavirus across Virginia, up from nearly 1,500 a day ago. Forty-one deaths have been reported.

The number of new cases reported has held roughly steady for the last three days in Virginia.

For most people, the new 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 illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The vast majority of people recover.

-MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press

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