PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island has the highest share of unemployment claims as a percentage of the civilian labor force, at 15.2 percent, in the country, according to a new Tax Foundation report.
That is nearly double the percentage of the total U.S. civilian labor force that has now applied for or is receiving benefits: 8.4 percent.
The next highest state is Michigan, at 15.1 percent. By comparison, Massachusetts is at 11.6 percent, and Connecticut is at 9.5 percent.
The data underscore the influx of unemployment claims that Rhode Island has received since the state’s first coronavirus case was announced March 1. On Friday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo reported that the state has seen 132,000 claims for unemployment insurance filed in recent weeks.
“We are totally overwhelmed,” the governor said during her daily news conference. “I will be the first to acknowledge our system is not perfect. You will have to wait longer than you want to wait or should have to wait for your check.”
The system is getting faster and more accurate every day, Raimondo said. But it still takes one to two weeks to process claims, she said.
Raimondo noted that to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, you have to have been laid off or had your hours severely reduced.
If your business is still open, that’s because it is considered essential, she said. “If you are able to go to work, we need you to go to work,” she said. “Please don’t quit because you think it will be easy to get unemployment benefits because it isn’t. There will be strict scrutiny applied.”
Raimondo said she understands it is a scary time to go work. “But if you are healthy, we need you do it,” she said.
Employers must provide their workers with opportunities to have appropriate social distancing, to wash their hands, and to take other precautions, she said.
Raimondo said she just signed an executive order to ensure businesses that are closed during the epidemic will not be penalized if their workers are accessing unemployment insurance. “I fully recognize I am the one who ordered you to close your business," she said. “So it’s not fair to punish you with higher (unemployment insurance) taxes.”
On Friday, Raimondo announced that six more Rhode Islanders have died from COVID-19, bringing the state death toll to 49.
Another 288 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the statewide total to 2,015, and 169 people are now hospitalized, she said.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, said the six new fatalities include one person in their 60s, four in their 90s, and one older than 100. Five of the six were living in nursing homes, she said.
Brett Smiley, state director of administration, said of the 8,000 people in the executive branch, 20 have tested positive for coronavirus. The state has been screening staff before they come to work to make sure those who do come to work don’t have symptoms, he said. The state is not testing employees who don’t display symptoms, he said.
Raimondo said new data show that Rhode Islanders are doing a better job of staying at home and social distancing.
“Now is not the time to ease up," she said. “Do not have a big Easter gathering this weekend. This is the moment I need you to be very serious and stay at home.”
Raimondo said the state has seen an increase in 911 calls reporting domestic violence. “It is a time of great anxiety and tension for everybody,” she said. “If you are hearing this and are a victim of abuse in your home, you a definitely not alone, and I want you to reach out for help."
Help is available by calling 1-800-494-8100, and courts are open for temporary restraining orders, she said.
Raimondo said she plans to have a more robust plan for addressing domestic violence next week. “I don’t see this problem going away any time soon," she said.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority will allow no more than 15 passengers on each bus at a time, and asking that passengers wear cloth face coverings, the governor announced. Also, RIPTA drivers will be assisting with Meals on Wheels, she said.
Alexander-Scott urged Rhode Islanders to avoid flushing wipes down the toilet. The clogs caused by wipes damage critical wastewater infrastructure and can back up sewage, she said.
She also urged people to throw away masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment. She said that if you Google “PPE litter,” you see hundreds of articles. But Rhode Islanders should take an extra minute or two to throw masks and gloves in the trash, not in parking lots or streets, she said.