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Harshman: Wyoming could exceed 15% unemployment amid COVID-19 pandemic

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said during the special legislative Friday, May 15 that Wyoming’s unemployment rate may wind up exceeding 15% amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“We think we’ll go above 15% unemployment,” he said, noting that over 33,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March when the pandemic began to cause business closures in Wyoming.

32,139 new unemployment insurance claims have been filed between March 15 and May 2, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. Workforce Services Communications Director Ty Stockton said Thursday that the state’s unemployment rate would be a better gauge of how many jobs have been impacted by COVID-19, but data for the second half of March and April are not yet available.

Harshman added that energy sector jobs have also been lost in the state, saying that 500 jobs in Campbell County have been lost in the last two weeks.

His comments came as he explained House Bill 1001. House Bill 1001 and Senate File 1001 would direct the appropriation of $1.25 billion in CARES Act or other future federal funding received by Wyoming. Those bills contemplate four categories of priority need for use of the funding:

  • COVID-19 emergency response: funding for expenditures incurred or that will be incurred “as a direct response of combating COVID-19 in Wyoming, for which CARES Act relief funds may currently be expended”
  • Relief aid: payments to state and local programs to support businesses, families and individuals
  • Economic development projects: capital construction, road building, infrastructure, broadband and other projects aimed to offset economic impacts of COVID-19
  • Replacement of lost revenue for public entities: relied funds for state and local governments to continue providing “a base level of critical services while longer term solutions to this economic crisis can be implemented”

Harshman noted that the economic development aspects of the legislation could be important in working to transition people who have lost employment to other jobs such as road building.

He said the $1.25 billion accounts for about one-third of federal dollars that have come to Wyoming in response to the pandemic, adding that the state is awaiting some further guidance and possible additional funding from the United State Congress.

He said that the U.S. Department of the Treasury has been clear that the funding cannot be used to backfill government revenue shortfalls stemming from things like lower sales tax collections amid the pandemic.

Harshman said the state will explore ways to reimburse local governments for COVID-19 related expenses such as overtime hours or setting up quarantine sites and other emergency actions as they receive more federal guidance.

“We certainly want to reimburse expenses,” he said.

While the purpose of the special session Friday (and Saturday if time is needed) is to get the $1.25 billion in funding flowing in the state to provide relief, the legislature is tentatively set to convene again on June 29 to provide further guidance on how funding will be made available to help in the state.

Topics such as possible Medicaid expansion have been assigned to legislative committees for exploration which could then be addressed by the full legislature during that possible session later this summer.

However, if the legislature decided not to reconvene for another special session, Harshman noted that the legislation guiding the appropriation of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding include triggers which would authorize the governor to appropriate funding which isn’t explicitly appropriated by the legislature during the current special session.

He said the first trigger date under the proposed legislation would be July 15. Harshman described the trigger dates as a way of allowing a longer term response to the pandemic.

Noting that the U.S. Department of the Treasury has said the CARES Act funding can’t be used to backfill lost government revenues, House District 26 Representative Jamie Flitner asked whether the legislature can do anything to help businesses cover county sales taxes they were responsible during the pandemic.

She noted that the federal Paycheck Protection Program has provided relief to help businesses cover employee salary expenses but said she’d like to see something done to provide a “property or sales tax holiday” in some way.

House District 27 Representative Mike Greear, chair of the House Minerals, Business & Economic Development, noted that the legislature would be considering legislation to provide further relief to Wyoming businesses.

House Bill 1004 and Senate File 1004 would appropriate $275 million of the overall $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding for three relief programs for Wyoming businesses.

The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.