BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - New numbers released Thursday show another 18,000 Mississippians filed for unemployment last week. That’s 3,000 fewer than the week before. That means to date, more than 357,600 people have filed unemployment claims in Mississippi since the pandemic started.
In March of this year, the average unemployment rate for Jackson, Harrison and Hancock Counties was 4.9%. Remember, it was mid-March when all coast casinos were ordered to close along with many other businesses.
In April, the unemployment rate for the three coastal counties spiked to 21.3%. The unemployment numbers for May will be released Friday, June 19, by MDES.
For comparison, that’s not the highest it’s been on the Coast since these records started in 1990. The highest unemployment rate for the coast came after Hurricane Katrina. In September 2005, unemployment was 24.7 percent.
According to MDES Executive Director Jackie Turner, a little less than half that number are still filing for unemployment, but on an encouraging note, there has been a noticeable change in the number of new claims.
“We’ve certainly seen a decline in the number of claims filed, but as businesses come on and maybe they cannot keep all of their employees or that kind of thing, we are continuing to see a number of claims, but it has significantly dropped. the number of calls coming into our call centers and the traffic on the website has decreased.”
Turner went on to say they expect to see the number of claims significantly drop again when the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits stop being paid out at the end of July.
“It will be interesting to see but we do think we’ll see a significant decline in the number of people drawing unemployment after that $600 rolls off, said Turner.
More than a billion dollars has been paid out since the pandemic began, which has also led to an increase in unemployment fraud.
“The number one thing you can do is protect your information and, when you detect fraud or think possibly that you may have been attacked for your unemployment insurance claim, maybe you get something in the mail you weren’t expecting, contact us at SAFE@mdes.ms.gov or through one of your local WIN job centers and you can drop off documents with them if you need to,” she continued.
Another aspect MDES is investigating is people who continue to draw unemployment benefits, despite having the option to go back to their jobs.
“We do police it and the employers have to help us police it, as well,” said Turner. “We did discover the typical way employers report back to us when someone is filing and has never been laid off, or they’ve had a job offered to them and they won’t come back, (employers) do report that to us.”
As part of the state’s new RESTART MISSISSIPPI program, employers are encouraged to report to MDES when employees refuse to return to work.
“Those documents are on our website for employers to tell us a significant number of things going on in their workplace, including fraud, including when employees have been offered a job and they won’t come back,” said Turner. “When that happens, there is a due process in place. But if someone is offered a job and they don’t come back, most likely, unless there’s extenuating circumstances, they will be removed from unemployment and may in fact have overpayments that will cause them to have penalties and interest added to it. And we will push forward in the future to collect those funds back.”
Gov. Reeves has said he does not want to see the burden of unemployment fall on the shoulders of business owners. It’s something that his administration and MDES are working together to prevent.
“I sent a letter to the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House asking for an infusion of the state’s CARES Act Funds to help replenish the trust fund and keep the unemployment rates down for our employers, specifically the general experience rating, because the reality is when the trust fund balance goes down and those in MS need it - and it has gone down quite a bit since the beginning of the pandemic - it has to be replenished some way,” said Turner. “And that burden falls to the employers and we want to relieve them of, if not all of it, most of it... The way to do that, one of the ways, the most significant way, the best way we think, is to get a replenishment of the state’s CARES Act funding to do that.”