A screen grab from March 19 indicates heavy traffic on the state unemployment benefits site.

HELENA — Montana unemployment claims spiked this week as the global COVID-19 outbreak began to take its toll on the state economy. Data released Thursday evening by the state Department of Labor and Industry indicates that 6,000 workers filed unemployment claims between Monday, March 16, and Wednesday, March 18.

That figure included 3,071 new filings Wednesday after Gov. Steve Bullock’s Tuesday announcement that the state would expedite unemployment benefits for workers forced out of work by the outbreak. The upswell, which began before that announcement with 893 new filings on Monday, represented a dramatic upswing from even last week, when the state received an average of fewer than 100 filings each week day.

Of the 6,000 unemployment filings in the first three days of this week, 5,403 were classified as new requests for unemployment benefits. An additional 597 Montanans filed to reopen lapsed claims in the first three days of this week.

The state’s total workforce was approximately 530,000 as of last September, according to DLI. That indicates that the 6,000 filings represent just over 1% of Montana workers.

“We are encouraging any Montana workers that have had to reduce hours or have been laid-off due to COVID-19 impacts to file for unemployment compensation at MontanaWorks.gov,” DLI spokeswoman Lauren Lewis said in an email. “As a Department, we are working hard to ensure we are providing up-to-date information and timely resources during this time of need.”

The state also has a resource guide available at dli.mt.gov/employer-covid-19.

Bullock said Tuesday that the state will adopt expedited rules allowing faster unemployment claim processing for workers who are laid off, furloughed, or forced into quarantine as a result of the outbreak, waiving a typical one-week waiting period. He also said in a press call that employees who intend to return to their job once the outbreak passes will be exempted from the usual requirement that they apply for jobs on an ongoing basis as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits.

“The rules we’ve implemented today will ensure that workers impacted by COVID-19, whether it’s because they’ve been laid off, are quarantined, or need to take care of a family member, can do so without worrying about how they will make ends meet during these difficult times,” Bullock said Tuesday.

With restaurants, resorts, and other public accomodations in many parts of Montana shut down in an effort to slow the coronavirus’s spread, the outbreak is having a direct economic impact on the state’s businesses and their employees. An initial survey conducted last week by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, for example, found that about half of the travel-related businesses that responded expected to reduce their workforce as a result of the pandemic.

Federal officials, including Montana’s congressional delegation, have also discussed economic relief efforts. One proposal being discussed in Washington, D.C., for example, would send relief checks to taxpayers in an effort to prop up the economy.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.