Downtown Dinnertime

Main Street is void of activity Wednesday evening in downtown Bozeman.

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On March 11, before there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Montana, 57 Montanans filed a new claim for unemployment benefits.

On March 18, with 15 cases of the virus in the state, there were 2,830 new claims — an increase of nearly 50 times in seven days.

Gov. Steve Bullock and the Department of Labor and Industry this week enacted temporary emergency measures for Montanans whose jobs have been affected by COVID-19. That move means people who were laid off or lost hours because of the fallout of the virus are eligible for unemployment payments, even if they’re expecting to come back to work after the restrictions are lifted. It also waived the one-week waiting period before payments can be sent.

“The key here is that we recognize this national emergency with our emergency rules and we are taking into account how very different this circumstance is compared to what we would consider more standard job layoff or job loss situations,” said Brenda Nordlund, the acting commissioner with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

The emergency rules cover workers who are directed by local health officials or doctors to quarantine, as well as the household members of someone directed to quarantine. It doesn’t cover people who need to stay home to take care of kids who aren’t in school or people who are too sick to work.

“The UI (unemployment insurance) program is not a paid sick leave program, so we’re not going to be able to cover all situations,” Nordlund said.

The new rules don’t cover people who can work from home while quarantining but choose not to. People filing for unemployment benefits will also need to be “monetarily eligible” — meaning they needed to make enough money while employed to qualify.

The emergency rules give employers more time to pay unemployment contributions and extends the deadlines for wage reports, as long as those delays are related to the virus.

While new claim numbers always vary from day to day, the numbers for the week before March 11 stayed between 17 and 71 new claims per day. It was only after March 14 that claims began to jump.

On the 14th, 38 new claims were filed. The next day, that number was 98. The numbers continued to climb, hitting 720 new claims on March 16 and 1,853 the following day.

On Thursday, 2,111 new claims were filed and 160 existing claims were reactivated.

Unemployment claims being reactivated are also on the rise, though not as sharply as new unemployment claims. On March 11, there were 29 unemployment claims reactivated. On the 18th, there were 241.

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.