The number of people on unemployment in Virginia begins slight decline

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

For two straight weeks, fewer people have filed for weekly unemployment insurance benefits in Virginia than the week prior.

Ongoing unemployment claims began rising mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic spread to Virginia, peaking on May 10, with a record 403,557 people seeking weekly jobless benefits, which now include an extra $600-a-week in pandemic relief.

As of Sunday, that number had dropped, albeit very slightly, to 398,411 over two consecutive weeks.

Timothy Aylor, an economist with the Virginia Employment Commission, attributed the leveling off to an improving labor market as the state slowly begins to reopen. “People are going back and accepting positions,” he said.

But he said the trend also likely reflects a large backlog of claims that have yet to be processed.

The state’s unemployment system, which runs on 1980s technology, has struggled to keep up with the unprecedented spike in people seeking assistance. While many claims are processed within a week, any applications that requires human review can take much longer and applicants continue to report that it’s nearly impossible to get questions answered about applications and claims.

The state-wide unemployment rate in Virginia jumped to 10.6 percent in April, the most recent month for which the data is available. That’s a rise of 7.3 percentage points.

According to local data released Wednesday, Bath County, where the largest employer, The Homestead, closed after the pandemic began, had the state’s highest rate of unemployment, at 20.5 percent. The city of Falls Church had the lowest, at 5.8 percent.

Aylor said rural areas have been hit harder in part because food, retail and other services have born the brunt of the pandemic.

“Even though there’s fewer workers in the labor force in a rural area, sometimes these jobs are more highly concentrated,” he said.