The Idaho Department of Labor faces a herculean task in processing a 1,200 percent surge in unemployment benefit claims filed during the week of March 15 to 21, compared with the prior week.
Due to coronavirus-related layoffs, workers filed 13,341 new claims during the week — an increase of 12,310 claims. The shocking numbers follow Gov. Brad Little’s Wednesday announcement that businesses in the state that don’t offer designated essential services must close their doors amid the coronavirus outbreak, and people need to self isolate at home.
Georgia Smith, the Idaho Department of Labor’s deputy director, said the department’s benefits managers are strategically spreading out the workload to process the record volume of new claims as quickly as possible. Smith said many workers have been reassigned to help process claims, and the department is hiring new workers.
Smith said staff have also been calling claimants to request additional information about their applications.
“They’re really taking a strategic look at how we can accommodate this workload,” Smith said.
Smith advises people seeking to file for benefits to first read the list of frequently asked questions posted on the Department of Labor website, to watch the posted instructional videos and to download the user guide before trying to file online. Smith said claims must filed on a desktop computer, rather than a mobile device, and she advises people to register for direct deposit to expedite receipt of their benefits.
Furthermore, Smith said call volume is “going through the roof right now” and urges claimants to avoid calling with questions during busy times — on Mondays or between the hours of 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Many businesses are still open
Cars have been moved out of the showrooms at Phil Meador Auto Group locations.
In their place, extra chairs have been added, enabling the staff to space customers far apart from one another. The business has shifted its focus away from selling cars toward making pressing mechanical repairs, which the governor declared to be an essential service that should continue during the coronavirus crisis.
“We’re trying to limit the number of oil changes unless (the customer) is way over on miles,” said General Manager Jason Meador.
Little’s order offers exemptions for the following essential services, though employees must still maintain 6 feet of separation from others, wash hands thoroughly and regularly and cover coughs:
• Health care operations such as hospitals, clinics, mental health providers, hospice providers, veterinarians, dentists and pharmacists.
• Essential infrastructure operations such as airports, utilities, public works providers, commercial construction companies, public transportation entities, solid waste collection companies, and internet and telecommunications services.
• Essential businesses and organizations such as grocery and convenience stores, farmers markets, food banks, pet supply stores, butcher shops, liquor stores, beer and wine distributors, farms and food processors, homeless shelters and other social service providers, newspapers and other media providers, television stations, auto repair and supply stores, hardware and gun stores, banks and credit unions, package and food deliverers, plumbers, electricians, exterminators, landscapers, educational institutions, laundromats and dry cleaners, hotels and motels, taxis and other private transportation providers, all Idaho National Laboratory facilities, childcare facilities, legal and accounting services, and emergency services such as police stations and fire houses.
• Restaurants can also remain open but can only offer drive-through, carry-out and delivery options.
Meador said his locations are no longer washing customers’ cars. Staff members who normally wash cars have been moved to the showroom, where they’re constantly wiping down surfaces with sanitizer and disinfecting seating areas after customers leave.
Cars on the lot are locked and won’t be sent out for test drives. They’ll deliver cars and the paperwork to the doorsteps of some customers who have already made purchases, Meador said. They’ll also work on a case-by-case basis to accommodate customers in dire need of a new car — for example, a hospital worker who needs a vehicle to get to work.
Meador said his staff has also been picking up cars from customers’ homes to be serviced, making sure to wipe them down thoroughly before returning them.
“Everybody here is wearing latex gloves now,” Meador said.
Elevated importance of internet
As the public hunkers down at home and seeks to self isolate amid the coronavirus, Brad Barrott believes internet service has become nearly as important as power and water.
In many households, parents will rely on internet to work from home while their children participate in online school instruction in a nearby room.
Barrott, a partner in Pocatello-based Tru Fiber, offers a product that can meet the heightened demand — high-speed and reliable fiber optic internet. As an essential business provider, Barrott is allowed to remain open. He’s taking many precautions, nonetheless.
”We’ve decided to take a measured response we felt was the right level of being open,” Barrott said.
Barrott’s staff will install new internet service for customers with no current provider. They’ll schedule in customers who already have internet for after the governor’s order expires.
Barrott said Tru Fiber is still taking service calls, and staff are continuing to install fiber infrastructure. He now has fiber available in several Chubbuck neighborhoods and the Highland area of Pocatello and plans to open to three new Chubbuck neighborhoods in the spring.
Barrott is also owner of Big Dog Satellite, which offers a designated essential service as a media provider. The showroom at Big Dog has been closed, but Barrott said the business is still taking dish customers and fielding service calls.
Delivery or carryout, but no dine-in
The Grecian Key Restaurant, 314 N. Main St., has added a new delivery service in response to having its dining room closed during the coronavirus epidemic.
The governor’s order allows restaurants to remain open for drive-through, delivery and carryout service only.
Manager Melissa Jones said a waitress who wasn’t getting enough hours is now handling all of the deliveries. Customers may also order meals for carryout, though Jones said they shouldn’t linger inside the lobby.
“It’s been slow, but we hope it will pick up soon,” Jones said.
Building will continue
Bannock County Commissioner Terrel Tovey said the county has been flooded with calls from people worried about getting building permits and contractors who fear they won’t be allowed to finish projects.
Tovey emphasized the county will continue issuing permits and conduct inspections as always, and construction is exempted from the order as an essential service. It just might take the county a bit longer to process them while they work through the logistics of operating.
City of Pocatello implements service changes
The city of Pocatello has limited services to only those deemed essential.
Pocatello Regional Transit will operate the A, B, C and E routes for essential travel only, with buses being rotated every shift for disinfecting. Door-to-door service will be limited to essential trips.
Utility Billing staff will move to accepting payments only by phone, mail or online at pocatello.us/356/Utility-Bill-Pay. The Pocatello Animal Shelter is closed to the public, but staff will continue caring for shelter animals. Pet owners must make an appointment by calling 208-234-6156 to pick up any pets from the shelter, and the shelter will not be accepting new animals.
The police and fire departments will continue responding, but their stations and associated services will be closed to the public.
The Marshall Public Library remains closed to the public. Building Department staff will continue issuing building permits and perform inspections.
Police will postpone non-essential property releases from the department until the order is lifted. Essential releases will be made by appointment only.
Sanitation services will operate as normal. Water Department staff will continue responding to emergencies and water-quality concerns.
The Water Pollution Control department will be limited to plant operations only, though residents may still report sewer-related emergencies by calling 208-705-6442.
Pocatello Parks and Recreation offices and the Community Recreation Center, the two city-owned golf courses and Zoo Idaho will be closed to the public, though the zoo will continue caring for animals.
Residents will be allowed continue using the City Creek area for exercise and recreation.
Idaho Power closes parks, boat ramps, day-use recreation areas
Idaho Power announced Thursday it’s closed all of its recreational facilities, including boat ramps, parks and day-use areas. Its campgrounds were closed on March 16.
According to a press release, signs and even physical barriers may be installed. Anyone who doesn’t comply with closures risks being subject to a trespassing citation, the company said. Idaho Power owns and maintains more than 50 recreational sites along the Snake River from American Falls to Hells Canyon as part of it federal hydroelectric project licenses.
Police vow not to take a hard line on closure
Officials with local police departments vow they won’t take a hard line on the closure.
Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland issued a press release urging the public not to call his dispatch to ask if they have permission to do a specific activity.
“I want to assure people that the Bingham County Sheriff’s Office is not going to be stopping people from driving down the road,” Rowland said in the press release. “If you need to drive to the store or doctor’s office that is just fine. If you want to take a walk that is fine also. We are going to make sure that people are not gathering in large groups.”
Chubbuck police issued a similar statement, asking the public to avoid making 911 calls for information about the governor’s order.
“As your chief of police, I have no intention of carrying out enforcement for a stay at home order,” Chubbuck Police Chief Bill Guiberson said in a press release. “For the most part Chubbuck residents have been doing their part and showing that they understand the seriousness of the situation we are all experiencing.”