Missouri swamped by unemployment claims as COVID-19 cases exceed 500

Missouri

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – The state of Missouri is waiving some requirements for receiving unemployment benefits as it tries to respond to a more than 900% increase in claims during the coronavirus pandemic, state officials said.

At the same time, Missouri health officials said Thursday the state experienced another significant jump in confirmed coronavirus cases, with 502, up from 356 on Wednesday. Eight people have died from the virus.

Federal unemployment data released Thursday showed 40,508 Missourians filed initial unemployment claims for the week ending March 21, compared to 4,016 the previous week. That came as a record number of people across the U.S. applied for unemployment benefits last week because of layoffs caused by the pandemic.

Anna Hui, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said Wednesday that the filings last week equaled about 30% of the state’s total for all of last year.

Missouri will temporarily waive its one-week waiting period and a requirement that people seeking unemployment benefits make at least three attempts to find work each week, the state said.

A union representing health care workers in Missouri asked Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday to take steps to ensure the safety of hospital, home care, and nursing home workers. In a letter to the governor, SEIU Healthcare said Parson should enact such policies as employer-paid health care, 15 days of paid sick leave, hazard pay and ensuring adequate personal safety equipment for health care workers.

The union also asked Parson to enact a statewide stay-at-home order, which he has so far refused to do, saying it would severely damage the state’s economy.

Parson’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Also Thursday, advocacy groups sent a letter to Missouri Chief Justice George Draper asking the state Supreme Court to direct jails to release prisoners to slow the spread of the virus.

Saint Louis University professor Dr. Fred Rottnek wrote that jails are ill-equipped to sanitize spaces, meet social distancing requirements and otherwise protect the health and safety of prisoners and guards. He described an outbreak in jails and prisons as a “public health nightmare.”

Rottnek recommended considering the release of prisoners with pre-existing health conditions, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and others until jail populations drop enough for proper social distancing.

Rottnek is director of Community Medicine at Saint Louis University. Groups including ArchCity Defenders and the Missouri ACLU signed on to the letter

Authorities in St. Louis and St. Louis County were finalizing plans to immediately release more than 140 inmates from city and county jails as part of efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the Post-Dispatch reported.

In Kansas City, tents were set up east of downtown in a multi-agency effort to ensure the homeless continue to receive services during the pandemic.

Amtrak announced Thursday that it would reduce its service between Kansas City and St. Louis to one trip daily rather than two, starting Monday, because of decline in rider numbers.

By MARGARET STAFFORD and SUMMER BALLENTINE

Ballentine reported from Columbia, Missouri.

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