Montana Public Radio

Extra Benefits Ending With Montana's Unemployment Rising

Sep 10, 2020

The extra $400 in weekly unemployment insurance payments is no longer available in Montana, the Department of Labor and Industry said Thursday, even as new unemployment claims are on the rise.

The department said the Federal Emergency Management Agency ended funding for the Lost Wages Assistance program on Sept. 5.

The program was established by President Donald Trump after Congress did not reauthorize the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which provided an extra $600 weekly unemployment benefit through late July.

FEMA funded $300 of the new weekly payment, while Montana contributed another $100 from its coronavirus relief funds. The department estimated that the Lost Wages Assistance payments in Montana will total about $59 million for six weeks of payments that began in the last week of July.

“We have done everything we can on the state's side,” Gov. Steve Bullock said during a press conference Thursday. He said the state will not provide additional funding for unemployment support. Bullock urged Congress to find a solution.

The number of new applications for unemployment assistance in Montana rose for the fourth consecutive week, according to new figures released Thursday by the U.S. Employment and Training Administration. Over 2,700 people filed for unemployment during the week ending Sept. 5, an increase of nearly 9% from the previous week.

Lauren Lewis, a spokesperson for the labor department, said the increase could be due to a shorter tourism season, with jobs in the leisure activities industry hit hardest by the pandemic.

Lewis also said the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides payments to self-employed people, has been a prime target for fraud, contributing to the rising number of new claims. The number of claims submitted through the program has more than doubled since Aug. 16. The department has stopped over $185 million in fraudulent payments on PUA claims, Lewis said.

Bullock announced on Thursday additional coronavirus relief funding would be available for meat process plants and nonprofits in the state.

Under the new round of funding, nonprofits can receive grants of up to $150,000, significantly more than the $10,000 grants previously available. Bullock allotted $25 million to the nonprofit funding program, after providing $10 million in coronavirus relief aid to nonprofits previously.

The meat processing plant funding will be determined by the state Department of Agriculture after reviewing existing applications that were not funded under the previous round of grants. The first round of funding provided $7.5 million to 62 businesses, after 148 applications were received, requesting nearly $18 million.

Of the $1.25 billion originally awarded to the state in coronavirus relief funds, over $407 million have been spent, and over $1 billion have been allocated to various relief programs.

Health officials reported 196 new confirmed coronavirus cases statewide Thursday, bringing the number of confirmed cases to over 8,600. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because not everyone has been tested and people can be infected with the virus without having symptoms.

The number of new cases confirmed each week has remained steady but high over the last month, pushing hospital capacity in some parts of the state to its limit.

St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, which is seeing a surge in cases, brought on more than 20 volunteer nurses, respiratory therapists and technicians from three sister hospitals in Colorado to relieve staff and ensure the hospital continues operating smoothly, the Billings Gazette reported.

Yellowstone County, home to Billings, currently accounts for 40% of Montana's known cases, despite having about 15% of the state’s population.

The virus has killed at least 123 people in the state, including 12 in the past seven days. In cases of deaths where race is known, more than a third are Native Americans, who make up about 7% of the state's population, according to a state epidemiological report analyzing case numbers and deaths through Sept. 4.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. 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.

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Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.