PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A staggering number of Rhode Islanders have filed for out-of-work benefits in the last eight days as the economic damage from the coronavirus outbreak grows.
The R.I. Department of Labor and Training revealed Wednesday morning that 19,575 people have cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason they filed claims for either unemployment insurance or Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) since last Monday.
“The Unemployment Insurance claims we are seeing are unprecedented,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said during a news briefing on Wednesday.
The numbers broke down as 17,779 claims for unemployment and 1,796 claims for TDI and its sister program, Temporary Caregiver Insurance (TCI). An additional 3,560 people filed claims for one of the programs without citing COVID-19 as the reason they’re now out of work.
To put those numbers in perspective, only about 11,600 people filed new claims for unemployment benefits in Rhode Island during the entire month of January, when the coronavirus outbreak was still mostly confined to China.
Based on the size of the state’s labor force in January, a rough estimate would suggest the new claims could push Rhode Island’s unemployment rate from 3.4% in January to roughly 7.5% now. That would be the highest level since 2014.
Raimondo ordered all restaurants, bars, cafés and other establishments to close dine-in service on Monday in a bid to stem the spread of the disease. Hotels and other tourism companies have also seen huge drops in business as cancellations rise.
The state’s food services, lodging, leisure and hospitality industries together employed about 61,100 people in January, according to DLT. An additional 48,400 people worked in retail.
The net position of Rhode Island’s Employment Security Fund, which pays for unemployment benefits, stood at $559 million as of June 30, according to the state’s annual audit. Raimondo has expressed concern about how quickly that could run out, although she said it’s in good shape relative to the Great Recession.
“It is in much, much better financial shape than before entering the last recession,” she said.
Earlier in the week she urged federal action to help the states with benefit payments.
“Our unemployment insurance fund is getting hit pretty hard right now,” Raimondo said. “The right thing is that Congress needs to pass another stimulus to replenish that fund.”
Asked how long the money currently in the fund could last, Raimondo said, “It depends. Like everything, these models depend on the assumptions. If 10,000 people a day hit it, we’re talking a month and a half to two months — if more people do that, then it’s less.”
Raimondo has also called on President Trump to activate the federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance program, which covers jobless benefits in states that have suffered a disaster. That had not happened as of Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Raimondo said there’s some confusion among people who don’t know whether to apply for UI — designated for people who have been laid off — and TDI, which is for people who are out sick or quarantined because of the coronavirus.
“The benefit is higher for Unemployment Insurance,” Raimondo added.
The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bill passed by the House late Friday into Saturday which includes $1 billion to help states expand unemployment benefits and provide federal funding for extended benefits in states where the unemployment rate rises by 10% or more versus the prior year. (Standard unemployment benefits generally last 26 weeks.)
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Eli Sherman contributed to this story.