CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginians applying for unemployment benefits online could experience intermittent outages because the number of businesses closing or scaling back operations due to the coronavirus outbreak has sent claims surging, the state’s commerce chief said Thursday.
A total of 3,435 West Virginia residents applied for unemployment assistance last week, compared with 865 claims in the previous week, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
That number is destined to go higher. Gov. Jim Justice ordered nonessential businesses to close Monday.
It’s the highest number of claims since 3,791 claims were made the week of Jan. 9, 2016, when economists said the state was in a recession, mostly due to job losses in the coal industry.
The highest numbers of claims this century in West Virginia was in January 2010 when weekly claims peaked at 5,445, the Labor Department said.
Unemployment claims can be completed online or by phone at 1-800-252-5627. Local WorkForce West Virginia offices are closed during the coronavirus outbreak.
State Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch said the agency’s website is interfaced with the federal government and isn’t always working properly.
“We have had a few systems issues,” he said. “Sometimes the system can get overloaded.”
The system’s website says applicants who are filing weekly certifications might receive a message that they have no outstanding benefits to claim, but this means that the agency is still in the process of reviewing their application.
“If you file late in the week, it’s possible that you won’t get your benefits the very next week,” Gaunch said. “That’s just the way the system works.”
Gaunch said WorkForce West Virginia has 148 members handling claims. As of Thursday morning, the agency has processed 41,549 initial claims for benefits, including more than 10,000 claims for low-wage earners and partial unemployment.
“Our staff has really done yeoman’s work and I have to say they’re heroes to me,” Gaunch said.
Justice reassured worried residents and small businesses at his daily briefing Thursday that help is coming from the federal government. Struggling workers and the unemployed should get another cash boost from the $2.2 trillion emergency package that is nearing final approval in Congress. But Justice urged residents to heed his plea to work from home.
“There’s going to be an incredible amount of dollars that are going to flow to West Virginia,” Justice said. “There’s going to be many, many, many opportunities for our small businesses, provided that they continue to employ our workers.”
Justice’s executive order says people can leave their homes for food, medicine and other essential items. Businesses deemed essential — hospitals, take-out or delivery restaurants, banks and grocery stores — were allowed to stay open, while places such as hair salons, gyms and theaters were told to close.