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Rhode Island’s unemployment claims soar because of the coronavirus

Shops lined Atwells Avenue in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, R.I.
Shops lined Atwells Avenue in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, R.I.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE – Unemployment claims in Rhode Island are surging as businesses cope with a coronavirus outbreak that has prompted state leaders to close bars and restaurants in order to to prevent further community spread of the contagious illness.

In addition, the Rhode Island Food Bank is bracing for a jump in the number of people who will need help, and the Rhode Island Housing agency is urging homeowners having financial difficulty to contact their mortgage companies to discuss hardship forbearance.

The state’s Department of Labor and Training saw unemployment claims jump from 10 on March 10 to 447 on March 13, and director Scott Jensen said he expects the number to continue to grow as restrictions are imposed on companies throughout the state.

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Jensen said state employees worked around the clock all weekend to prepare for both unemployment and temporary disability insurance claims, and the department has streamlined its online system in order quickly process the filings.

“There are a lot coming in, but it’s not surprising,” Jensen said on Sunday. “That’s the reason we've been working all weekend.”

Jensen said the state can process claims in as little as two days, and unemployed workers can typically start receiving benefits within a week.

Meanwhile, the food bank is getting ready. “The entire hospitality industry will be hurt and so many people who work at restaurants are going to be affected. That’s a whole group of workers,” chief executive officer Andrew Schiff said Monday. “And with schools closed ... and childcare closed, parents will see a major loss in income because they can’t work. That combination of decrease in jobs in the hospitality industry and school and daycare closing -- we understand are necessary steps, but we anticipate families are going to run out of money and need food.”

Schiff said the Food Bank is making sure that food is being distributed to the food pantries that remain open. A list of food pantries is updated daily at https://rifoodbank.org/.

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The food bank has enough food now, but they are watching to see how fast supplies are depleted, Schiff said. “Then we’re going to need help from the public.” He expects the facility will need food donations within weeks.

As for those having trouble paying their mortgages because of being out of work, Christine Hunsinger, an assistant deputy director at the housing agency, said federal housing officials have announced that borrowers with Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgages are eligible for up to 6 to 12 months of hardship forbearance. FHA has issued a similar directive, she said.

The Rhode Island Housing agency also will work with borrowers to delay mortgage payments if needed, she said.

Governor Gina Raimondo announced Monday that she is ordering all restaurants, bars, and cafés to close off their dine-in services for at least two weeks, which will likely result in more layoffs in the service industry.

Indeed, more than 2,000 restaurant workers in Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood are expected to file for unemployment this week, according to Rick Simone, executive director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association.

Raimondo and Jensen have called on the federal government to declare the coronavirus outbreak a major disaster so that states can tap into the Disaster Unemployment Assistance funding, which allows for independent contractors to receive unemployment benefits.

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A federal disaster declaration will also help business owners secure low-interest loans to pay employees and stay afloat, according to Raimondo.

Rhode Island had 21 confirmed cases of coronavirus among residents as of Monday, and more than 2,300 residents have been asked to self-quarantine. The Department of Health said 149 people currently have tests pending.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.