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Alaska unemployment claims jump amid coronavirus concerns

Last Updated Mar 26, 2020 at 3:46 pm PDT

JUNEAU, Alaska — Claims for unemployment benefits have risen sharply in Alaska as concerns over the coronavirus ripple through the state, officials said Thursday.

Claims filed during the latest weekly reporting period totalled 7,806, up from 1,120 the week prior, said Lennon Weller, actuary for the state’s unemployment insurance system.

A jump of this magnitude, so quickly, is unprecedented, said Neal Fried, an economist with the state labour department. The timing is worrisome, too, he said, adding that Alaska has the most seasonal economy in the country, with tourism and fishing key industries. This is the time when employment in the state typically “starts to wake up and start growing again,” Fried said.

It’s unknown how long the impacts will last, Fried said.

The state labour department’s claims number of 7,806 was lower than one reported by the U.S. Department of Labor. Weller was uncertain why there was a difference.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has signed legislation waiving a mandatory waiting period before unemployment insurance benefits can begin.

The state has ordered the temporary closure of businesses such as gyms, theatres and hair and nail salons and suspended dine-in service at restaurants, bars and breweries. Some local governments have imposed “hunker down” orders, urging residents to stay home as much as possible.

The state also has recommended any tourist or non-essential business travel to the state be suspended.

Christine Hohf of Anchorage said she’s down to working two hours a day at a surgical centre after the state last week ordered health care providers postpone non-urgent or elective procedures for three months. Elective oral care procedures were ordered halted for a month.

Hohf said she’s her family’s sole provider and has applied at places like Walmart looking for jobs to help makes ends meet. Earlier this week, as first reported by the Anchorage Daily News, “out of boredom” she donned a unicorn suit her mom bought her as a joke and stood outside waving at passers-by. The response was positive.

She put out word she’d be willing to make visits to help cheer people up — an offer she says she’s been taken up on — and has been joined by a friend or her 14-year-old son in a dinosaur outfit.

They have followed guidelines — keeping their distance and not going into anyone’s house, she said. But they also want to bring joy.

“It’s nice to give a break … by making laughter happen,” she said.

Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press