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Unemployment Claims Soar As Coronavirus Slams Oregon's Economy

<p>A handmade&nbsp;closed sign taped to the&nbsp;window of one of&nbsp;Portland, Oregon's busiest restaurants, Screen Door.&nbsp;Their brunch and dinner&nbsp;lines usually stretch&nbsp;out the door and spill onto the sidewalk.&nbsp;On Monday, March 16, 2020, Gov. Kate Brown ordered restaurants and bars to stop all on-site dining and limit food sales to takeout and delivery service only to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.</p>

Claudia Meza

A handmade closed sign taped to the window of one of Portland, Oregon's busiest restaurants, Screen Door. Their brunch and dinner lines usually stretch out the door and spill onto the sidewalk. On Monday, March 16, 2020, Gov. Kate Brown ordered restaurants and bars to stop all on-site dining and limit food sales to takeout and delivery service only to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

UPDATED (March 26, 1:36 p.m. PT) - Oregonians filed more than 76,500 new unemployment claims during the week of March 15, a soaring number that reflects a staggering loss of jobs and hours as the coronavirus pandemic tears through the regional economy.

By comparison, Oregonians filed fewer than 5,000 initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits during the week of March 8.

Claims continued hitting record levels during the first few days of this week, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

Jobless claims surged in Southwest Washington, as well. More than 9,100 people across seven counties filed initial unemployment claims last week. Most of those claims came from Clark County.

In Oregon, the week of March 15 marked a pivotal shift in Gov. Kate Brown’s efforts to keep people home and slow the transmission of a virus that threatens to overwhelm the state’s hospital system. On Monday, March 16 parents throughout the state scrambled to adjust their work lives as K-12 public school closed and students remained at home. That same day, Brown restricted restaurants and bars to take-out and delivery service.

The economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic has been swift in the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes hotels and restaurants. On March 17, for example, the hotel and brewpub chain McMenamins announced it would lay off 3,000 people. Every day since has brought a new round of layoffs across the industry.

Eating and drinking establishments employed roughly 160,000 Oregonians before the coronavirus pandemic, according to Josh Lehner of the state’s office of economic analysis. Those bars and restaurants used to pay out $285 million in wages every month.

No longer. So far, the Oregon Employment Department has processed about 23,000 of the 76,500 initial unemployment claims from the week of March 15. The largest number – 10,700 – came from workers in the leisure and hospitality sector.

Those numbers could rise as restaurants that initially stayed open for take-out grapple with whether it’s worth the risk to kitchen staff.

“Pok Pok Restaurant Group employs around 150 people and by the end of this week, 99% of everybody will be laid off,” said chef and owner Andy Ricker as he closed down all operations.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “Anybody’s whose worked in a restaurant will understand that it’s not just a bunch of names on a list. You eat together. You work together. Some people have been with us for years and years and years.”

Oregon is no outlier. The health of the entire economy is now at stake as state governors, including in Oregon and Washington, order the closure of many non-essential businesses in a desperate bid to keep people home.

A record 3.3 million Americans filed for jobless benefits last week. That jump in initial claims far surpassed the record of 695,000 set in 1982.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kate Davidson is OPB’s business and economics reporter. Before moving to Oregon, she was a regular contributor to "Marketplace", a reporter at Michigan Radio focused on economic change in the industrial Midwest and a producer at NPR.