(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania unemployment claims neared 650,000 on Thursday as the governor’s statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses ravages the economy.
Data from the Department of Labor and Industry shows claims reached 378,900 through March 21 after all restaurants and bars shuttered their dining rooms indefinitely to slow the spread of COVID-19. An additional 271,000 claims have been filed as of Thursday, just four days into the governor’s promised enforcement action against non-life-sustaining businesses who may consider defying the mandate.
Federal data shows Pennsylvania’s claims represent one-fifth of the 3.3 million Americans requesting unemployment benefits nationwide as governors enact strict limits on public life, shuttering most businesses and closing public schools indefinitely.
Penny Ickes, spokesperson for the labor department, said the numbers reflect the state's early action to control the virus and its campaign to encourage unemployed residents to apply for benefits during the shutdown.
"Pennsylvania was one of the first and largest states to take action to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19 with aggressive mitigation efforts, therefore an increase in unemployment compensation applications would be expected," she said.
The UC system has also not experienced any issues and claims have been processed quickly, Ickes said.
Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters Thursday that Pennsylvania's claims will rise to 800,000 before week's end, comprising about 10 percent of the federal total.
"Pennsylvania is really the epicenter of the unemployment insurance claims and we are doing everything we can to turn this around as quickly as possible," he said.
Wolf placed more than half of the state’s 12 million residents under stay at home orders this week and said he will expand the mandate if – and when – other counties show sustained community spread of the virus. Confirmed cases neared 1,700 in Pennsylvania on Thursday and 16 people have died, so far.
"We are just seeing the beginning of this crisis and we don’t know how bad the surge will be or when the pandemic will end," Wolf said. "We are not fighting a battle, we are fighting a war."
The widespread closures prompted lawmakers this week to relax unemployment compensation rules via House Bill 68. Wolf said he will sign the legislation.
"We are all very aware of the extraordinary circumstances currently facing thousands of hard working Pennsylvanians," said Mike Straub, spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus. "The General Assembly acted swiftly to expand access and eliminate waiting periods for Pennsylvanians who are now turning to this system, and we will continue to do everything we can throughout this pandemic to help workers and protect their employment status so they can return to work once this crisis is over."
Jenn Kocher, spokesperson for the Senate GOP, called the numbers "staggering," making the legislature's response all the more critical.
"We felt that it was important to ease eligibility requirements and access to unemployment compensation for workers who have been directly impacted by the coronavirus, including waiving the one-week waiting period for all claimants during the governor’s disaster declaration," she said.