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Idaho's unemployment benefit fund looking strong, for now

by Rebecca Boone
| May 5, 2020 11:06 AM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Before the surge of coronavirus-related joblessness hit Idaho, the state estimated it had enough money to cover nearly 16 months’ worth of unemployment benefits.

That’s far better than many states -- some of which are already shopping for loans after running low on benefit money -- but Idaho’s unemployment trust could still fall short, depending on how long the pandemic lasts.

“It’s almost twice as solvent as it was in the Great Recession, so we think it’s very healthy and it will sustain this one,” said Salvador Vazquez, Idaho Department of Labor’s market information director. “The other question is how long is this going to last, and you know, nobody has an answer to that.”

Nationwide, more than 30 million people have filed for jobless aid since the coronavirus outbreak began forcing millions of employers to close. That’s more than one in six American workers. Economists have forecast the national unemployment rate could go as high as 20% for April, the highest rate since it reached 25% in the Great Depression. At least six states have notified the federal government that they may need to borrow billions of dollars to pay unemployment benefits.

Idaho calculates its unemployment trust solvency rate based on the most expensive three years in the past 20. The last peak was during the Great Recession: In the first week of March 2009, nearly 4,000 new unemployment claims were filed and nearly 47,000 people were already receiving unemployment benefits.

That amount was dwarfed last month, with each week of April setting new record highs. More than 8,800 new people filed for unemployment benefits during the week of April 25, 2020, joining more than 71,000 residents already receiving unemployment.

April’s influx isn’t part of the state’s solvency estimate, because the data is too new.

“We saw the wave (of claims) coming in really quick with amazing numbers, really large numbers,” Vazquez said. “The number of claims in the system are now starting to decline.”

Idaho had almost $707 million in its main unemployment trust fund in March, plus roughly $200 million more in a reserve fund. The reserve fund was created by Idaho lawmakers after the Great Recession forced the state to borrow money more than $200 million from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits.

Still, any estimates of how long the current trust money will last are just that — estimates. Policy analyst Michele Evermore with the National Employment Law Project, told The Associated Press last week that she imagines every state will have to borrow money to cover unemployment costs before the end of the year.

The conservative policy research group Tax Foundation estimates that Idaho has enough money to cover nearly nine months of unemployment benefits. That estimate doesn’t include the reserve fund, but also doesn’t account for more than 40,000 new unemployment benefit applications filed after April 4.

So far more than 2,100 Idaho residents have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and at least 64 have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Testing is still limited, and health officials believe many more Idaho residents likely have COVID-19.

Still, Idaho Gov. Brad Little said the number of newly confirmed cases has slowed enough to begin reopening more businesses across the state. Daycares and other businesses reopened May 1, and if the number of cases remains mostly flat then more businesses can open in mid-May. That's good news for the state's unemployment trust fund, Vazquez said.

“If it works, then we are going to go back to normal, whatever normal means,” he said. “If the concern is if we're going to have funds to pay the unemployed during this crisis, the answer is yes, we do.”

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Associated Press correspondent David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.