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Coronavirus and the states: unemployment sites jam, evictions pause and more

A wave of laid-off workers, mostly from restaurants and bars that together form the nation’s largest private employer, overwhelmed state unemployment systems as states relaxed rules on coronavirus-related unemployment insurance.

Northeastern and New England states were the first to see websites jammed by new jobless claims, as more governors opted to close restaurants and other public gathering places.

At least 20 states and the District of Columbia have announced emergency help for laid-off workers, usually waiving waiting periods for benefits and extending temporary benefits during the crisis, according to Stateline research.

In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, online systems jammed as thousands took advantage of emergency rules allowing internet applications for unemployment benefits without the usual waiting period and in-person appearance.

Connecticut claims reached about 12,000 yesterday and 30,000 in the past week, 10 times the rate before the crisis, threatening to deplete the state’s reserve funds. A record 15,000 filed in New Jersey Monday.

Rhode Island estimated that almost 7,000 people filed for unemployment Monday, compared to 160 the previous Monday. Thousands of restaurant workers in New Hampshire faced layoffs, according to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who ordered restaurants to cease dine-in operations.

If claims in Rhode Island reach 10,000 a day, the state’s unemployment funds would run out in about six weeks, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo estimated.

In Colorado, the Department of Labor and Employment announced more than 6,800 “attempts to file” for unemployment insurance Tuesday before the state’s system was shut down for maintenance.  

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned that the unemployment rate could hit 20% if federal stimulus funds don’t stop layoffs. An emergency bill pending in the U.S. Senate would help states with unemployment benefits once their unemployment rates rise above 10%.

Some of the fastest-growing state economies in the West and South are based heavily on low-wage jobs in hospitality, creating a precarious situation for downturns like the one to come, economists say.

Restaurants and bars employed almost 13 million people in 2018, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data reviewed by Stateline. Only local governments employed more people, about 14 million, and employment in bars and restaurants dominated the tourism-dependent hospitality industry, accounting for almost two-thirds of its jobs. The tally includes both full-time and part-time jobs.

In California, layoff notices filed recently included a Sacramento craft beer distributor catering to bars and restaurants, and an equipment rental company near Los Angeles that specializes in tents for weddings.

California’s state Employment Development Department told Stateline that it doesn’t have specific estimates on recent filings but has seen a “marked increase” in recent days. California has the largest number of restaurant employees among states, about 1.6 million.

Legislators quickly approve funding measures

State lawmakers are scrambling to approve emergency spending packages.

After a marathon session, the Michigan House and Senate voted unanimously for a $125 million spending bill that includes money for virus monitoring, infection control and medical supplies. That comes on top of a $25 million coronavirus funding bill legislators approved last week.

In Maine, lawmakers quickly passed a package of bills before adjourning. One measure granted Democratic Gov. Janet Mills access to at least $11 million to respond to the crisis.

The package also would set up a consumer loan guarantee program, temporarily expand eligibility for unemployment benefits for workers affected by the coronavirus and authorize the governor to prohibit utilities from terminating residents’ electric and water service.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $1 billion legislative package that would increase hospital bed capacity, buy medical equipment, protect hospitals and nursing homes and provide safe beds for homeless populations. A second, $100 million measure would pay for protective equipment and cleaning for schools.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed off on $100 million in emergency funding. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both Democrats, each approved a $200 million coronavirus measure.

States call for more testing

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican who previously served as Florida’s governor, called on the nation to set up mobile coronavirus testing in every county by the end of the week. 

“Every county in the country should have at least one mobile testing site by Friday -- counties in hot spots like New York and South Florida need more than one,” Scott tweeted. “There's no excuse anymore.”

Maryland is addressing the testing issue by converting its vehicle emission inspection sites into drive-thru testing centers. While the state is working to set up the sites, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said officials still lack supplies to carry out tests. 

In Alabama, a hospital in Huntsville put its drive-up testing on hold because it lacked adequate supplies.

Scores of New Jersey lawmakers have signed a letter to President Donald Trump, urging him to use his authority to launch a World War II-like effort to scale up production of supplies, including testing kits. 

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence announced that state health authorities were given the go-ahead to authorize labs to conduct coronavirus testing.

Hospitals ask Congress to enhance Medicaid

The country’s safety net hospitals are urging Congress to bolster Medicaid to help ensure those hospitals can continue to treat low-income Americans.

In a letter to U.S. House and Senate leaders, Bruce Siegel, president and CEO of America’s Essential Hospitals, the organization representing safety net hospitals, urged the federal government to increase the match rate it pays to states in Medicaid, increase federal compensation to hospitals for caring for uninsured patients and require the Trump administration to drop a proposal that would curtail Medicaid spending.

Safety net hospitals generally treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. Other hospitals are under the obligation to treat only non-paying patients experiencing medical emergencies.

The hospital association didn’t specify how much it wants Congress to increase the federal match. Currently, the match is between 50% and nearly 78% for Medicaid spending, depending on each state’s per capita income.

It also asked Congress to insist that states not change Medicaid eligibility requirements to keep people out of the program.

The association also asked for Congress to block a Trump administration proposal that would reduce the federal Medicaid spending. According to one estimate, if enacted the proposal could reduce Medicaid spending between 5.8% to 7.6% and deprive hospitals of between $23 billion and $31 billion a year.

The Kaiser Family Foundation also published a brief detailing other steps the federal government could take to enhance Medicaid to help respond to the crisis. Chief among them is that the 14 states that have refused to increase Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act do so. That would broaden coverage to 2.3 million more poor adults, the foundation said.

Stateline staff writers April Simpson, Jenni Bergal, Alex Brown, Teresa Wiltz and Michael Ollove contributed to this report.

A longer version of this article first appeared on Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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