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Employee mental well‐being amidst Covid‐19: Major stressors and distress

Mish Boyka

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1 INTRODUCTION

The world is countering unprecedented health catastrophe but this is not the first instance. Before COVID‐19, another cholera pandemic and the “Spanish Flu” desolated the world in the early piece of the twentieth century. Therefore, while there have been episodes of Asian influenza, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and so on, the pandemic of COVID‐19 is on an extraordinary scale. It has shaken the whole world and made worldwide frenzy. The remedial measures like social distancing and lockdown have totally disturbed our routine life activities. Household work and rigorous and timeless work from home have made life more complicated physically as well as mentally stressful.

Today, work from home with digital means is the need of an hour. The sudden shift in the work pattern made things challenging for employees physically and mentally. Nowadays, employees have different struggles in their routine work life. Due to the remote working conditions, employees feel lonely and isolated. Since there are no face to face interactions with their boss and colleagues, employees feel frustrated and disappointed. In present times, employees need to complete their tasks along with the additional responsibilities they have in their house and uncertainties, which have blurred the fine line between work life and personal life (Deloitte, 2020).

Before COVID‐19 and the lockdown, employees were juggling between balancing their work and personal life. Although the lockdown has given a chance to spend time with their family members—at the same time in the absence of any domestic help—people are bound to perform household work on their own, which is quite challenging.

The present situation is not only affecting the physical health of employees, it has an adverse impact on their mental health too. People are caged inside their homes because it is the only way to remain protected from this infectious disease. People are surrounded by various uncertainties and risks that are ultimately affecting their mental fitness (WHO, 2019). The current pandemic situation has severely hit various aspects of businesses and economy (MacIntyrea, 2020; Shigemura et al., 2020). Surely, it appears that during a pandemic flare‐up, particularly on account of an obscure new infection, people’s emotional well‐being issues can, in some cases, be generally neglected. We are constantly counting the losses suffered by the country’s economy. However, the most ignored part is the mental health of employees, who are actually running the business operations and economy of a country, and they are treated as “human capital.” Under this situation, the involvement of employees should be a prominent concern for every organization. Keeping the employees’ morale high, and to maintain the level of productivity, is a quite challenging task for every employer. As employees are struggling with their mental status, employees’ mental health should be a matter of concern for every organization.

Unfortunately, very limited studies have been conducted over the condition of employee’s mental health, as everybody is concerned about the statistics related to economy. The present conceptual study tries to fill the gap and attempts to explore the main stressors for the working community and business. Furthermore, the study also explains the outcomes of stressors, which are in the form of distress, and evaluates the organizational efforts from the perspective of human resource management, which can minimize the glitches faced by employees.

2 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

In the present situation, the entire world is under threat. Such catastrophic situation is giving rise to many uncertainties. The whole world is struggling, many countries, in order to protect their citizens, have restricted travel, closed schools, universities, cinema halls, restaurants, and other public gathering events are on a halt. In order to reduce the level of infection and prevent themselves and their family members from the infection, people have quarantined themselves in their home. People are afraid of such bizarre activities around them. The pandemic has severely affected the world’s economy as well as the mental wellness of employees. People are so much afraid of COVID‐19, they are committing suicide. Through this paper, we analyzed the impact of the current pandemic situation on employees’ mental health by exploring the various stressors, which may result in distress and further how the problem can be handled from the perspective of HRM to mitigate the effect of COVID‐19 on employees’ mental wellness. Following Figure 1 is the related diagrammatic presentation of the conceptual framework.

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Conceptual framework

3 LITERATURE REVIEW

3.1 Major stressors and distress

A thorough review is conducted with the help of the recent and current literature from various sources like Google Scholar, Web of Science, and the guidelines issued by WHO, using key words like COVID‐19 impact, employee mental health, burnout, anxiety, and depression. We have focused on the articles published during February 2020–July 2020. The current literature tried to bridge the gap between the pandemic, employee psychology, and HRM perspective by identifying the various stressors among the working community and the impact of stressors in the form of psychological distress with the support of the existing literature. The paper examined the following major stressors during COVID‐19.

3.2 Isolation resulting into restlessness

During the lockdown, many big organizations are bound to work from home over digital means. Some organizations created the setup of work from home model overnight, and few are still in the adoption phase. However, we must accept that none of the organization is ready to go with 100% work from home model. By various digital means, like video calling, virtual meeting platforms, etc., companies are trying hard to make sure that their work is not affected by ensuring the involvement of their employees. But we cannot forget that human beings are social creatures. People are used to personalized human touch, unofficial coworkers’ gatherings as it gives a feeling of sense of belongingness at workplace and creates an impression of a part of the team. We are not ready to adopt such acute remote and isolated working conditions as it may lead to restlessness (Birla, 2020).

Globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO‐led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Unemployment is a well‐recognized risk factor for mental health problems, while returning to, or getting, work is protective.

In the absence of domestic help, people are bound to do household chores along with their official work. As there is no demarcation between the office timings and personal timings, in fact many employees are not used to the new digital work from home culture, which, in turn, consumes more time for employees to adjust. It is a big challenge, especially for those who are with kids as their children are home from schools and they need to care for them along with their work. The outbreak of COVID‐19 has made life very tough, to keep things clean. There are a lot of safety protocols at home too, which make things complicated at home.

3.3 Work pressure resulting into burnout

Due to the remote working situation, employees are feeling neglected as their commitment toward work is being questioned because they are not physically present at workplace. In such case, employees are working even harder to justify and showcase their efforts and commitment to the management. Not only the zoom fatigue but the current pandemic outbreak also gave rise to panic buying due to uncertain lockdown situation. Because of which a fine line between work and home has become fuzzy, which, in turn, leads to high level of work pressure, which is a major reason for employee burnout (SHRM, 2020). Following is the figure (Figure 2) related to data calculated by SHRM on employees’ mental well‐being.

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Employee mental well‐being

3.4 Job and Financial insecurities resulting into depression

COVID‐19 pandemic has hit hard the global economy as well as India. Organizations are struggling and facing economic crises as it is directly impacting their revenues, which are constantly declining. Every organization has to face downsizing in the coming 12 months. In such situation, organizations are left with no option but to reduce the staff and implementing other ways of cost‐cutting like lay‐offs, salary cuts, and delay in appraisals. This is creating a state of depression as the workforce has a lot of financial liabilities in terms of loans, EMIs, and debt, as well as fear of losing the job, which create a situation of severe financial crunches. Furthermore, people can witness the absorption of employment opportunities around them due to current the pandemic situation resulting into depression.

The effect of this crisis has been devastating on the economy as well. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMEI):

  • The average employment rate has reduced from 404 million in March 2019 to 282 million in April 2020, which means that about 122 million people have lost their jobs, including 27 million youth.
  • From an estimated 78 million entrepreneurs and businesses in 2019–20, we were down to approximately 60 million by April 2020.

Nearly 50 lakh salaried jobs were lost in India in July, according to the latest data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

3.5 Risk of infection and worry for family and friends resulting into fear

On the one hand, the employees working from home are suffering from social detachment, and, on the other few, employees are still bound to work onsite at workplaces with a constant threat of getting infected from outsiders. Due to which the employees are under great stress that they may become a carrier of the infection for their family members and loved ones. Employees are in extreme worry that whether the organizations are able to provide protection in workplace. People are so much afraid of getting infected from COVID‐19, they are even committing suicide. As per the data from a group of researchers including public interest technologist Thejesh GN, activist Kanika Sharma, and assistant professor of legal practice at Jindal Global School of Law Aman said 338 deaths have occurred from March 19 till May 2 and they do not have diagnosable psychological instability, the suicides are related to socioeconomic reasons and panic stigma due to worldwide lockdown.

3.6 Uncertainty resulting into anxiety

The current COVID‐19 pandemic has elevated uncertainty over the economy, work, accounts, and apparently physical and psychological well‐being. Nobody knows for how long the pandemic outbreak will affect the economy, whether we will be able to survive from such hard times both physically and financially. The fear of such unanswerable questions leads to uncertainty. Furthermore, news coverage of a pandemic outbreak may contain an amount of conflicting information, which can shake an individual’s trust (Mccauley, Minsky, & Viswanath, 2013), creates confusion, uncertainty, and increases the level of depression in the individual and their incapacity to cope with the intensity of the current situation. Moreover, the lack of clear information about the different levels of risks may lead individuals to imagine the worst, which exacerbates their anxiety (Desclaux, Badji, Ndione, & Sow, 2017).

4 WHAT ORGANIZATIONS CAN DO

In such a tough phase where employees are struggling professionally and personally, employers can play an important role in providing emotional and psychological support. The employer and employees both are accountable to minimize and handle the negative effect of the COVID‐19 outbreak.

4.1 Use Technology for Support

Since almost everything is digitalized in the current pandemic situation, organizations must utilize the technology in supporting the mental well‐being of human resources. Here, the biggest challenge for manufacturing companies like CEAT, SAR, and Aditya Birla lies in optimizing the downtime of the employees. For example, these companies’ efforts are highly appreciable as they transformed such testing phase into opportunities by involving them in building up their aptitude as their kind of work did not permit them to update themselves. The HR managers are also trying to connect emotionally with their employees by using the digital platform and conducting online classes on physical fitness and webinars to remain psychologically strong during the pandemic times, in addition to this, the HR leaders are also arranging counseling sessions so that they can support their employees in times of stress over losing their jobs and dread of getting contaminated (Goswami, 2020).

4.2 Ensure employees’ safety

As employees are worried about themselves as well as their family members’ health, organizations need to understand their responsibility toward employees. There are various sectors/companies where work from home is not possible, employees are coming to the workplace by staking their health and life. Therefore, it is the prime responsibility of companies to take care of the employees’ psychological and physical health. For instance, organizations like Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, NSE, and Fortis healthcare are ensuring proper safety measures at workplace and conducting counseling sessions for their employees in order to support them (Anand, 2020).

4.3 Post Covid‐19 times

People know that the negative effects of the current pandemic outbreak can be long lasting. HR can play a crucial role in handling the aftereffects of COVID‐19 also. Many multinational companies like Unilever and Deloitte believe in conducting mentorship programs during the pandemic situation to provide career guidance and attaining individual goals of employees, thereby having more loyal employees (Sharma, 2020). HR leaders are also focusing on finding how the employees can bounce back at their workplace with full zeal and enthusiasm after COVID‐19.

4.4 Creating awareness

Nowadays, whenever people turn on their TV sets, the news channels are flooded with related information. Even social media platforms are also not behind in scaring the people with the current situation, which creates fear and aggravates their perception of menace, which is ultimately degrading their mental health by creating anxiety (Bai et al., 2004; Garfin et al., 2020; Shigemura et al., 2020). As people are aware of the fact that misleading information spreads at a much faster pace, organizations must do something to cope with such situation like CHRO, Signify Innovations India states that their HR department has formed an internal crises committee, which keeps the employees updated regarding the COVID‐19 news, what can be the preventive measures, and how employees can protect themselves from the virus.

4.5 Building emotional connect

Since people are facing a rough duration professionally, personally, socially, and drained mentally, the HR department of the organizations must take steps to connect with their employees emotionally. Here, the HR managers need to ensure to remain connected to the employees in order to create a positive and stress‐free work environment. For this, leaders need to show empathy, provide structure, and explore the current work–life challenges of the teams and colleagues. As the world changes with the new reality, it is significant for HR to keep their representatives drew in and inspired. Relating representatives show that they care, as they shuffle between their work–life exercises. In fact, the HR personnel of various companies are taking initiatives to get through with this situation by engaging the employees in some constructive tasks like conducting yoga sessions, e‐classes, and guest lectures for improving soft skills, regular interaction with employees and their family members, organizing quiz, guidance for parenting as organizations understand the additional family responsibilities of employees, especially during this time. Another example of CHRO, Signify Innovations India, which organized coffee sessions and counseling sessions so that HR leaders can help in maintaining work–life balance by conducting informal meeting on team‐building exercises (Suryanarayan, 2020).

5 WHAT EMPLOYEES CAN DO

5.1 Emotional and Psychological fitness

It is a common saying that if you cannot go outside, go inside. We all know very well that there is a lot of negativity around us during this time, which is affecting not only physically but mentally and emotionally too (Delloitte, 2020). In such situations, meditation and spirituality can help the employees to cope up with the current challenging time. Relax your body and soul by achieving inner peace by exploring inner strength that helps in achieving emotional stability. In fact, this is the ideal time to press a pause button and relax by enlightening the mind and soul. Take short breaks and breathe deep while working. Take care of your mental health as well as your surroundings. A concern text can also do wonders for your colleagues.

5.2 Keep distance from negative news

Try to limit the dose of related negative news over all platforms like television as news coverage is giving insufficient and conflicting information. And social media also are the major carrier of misleading information, it is not always a trusted source of information for a pandemic, therefore creating rumors (Bontcheva et al., 2013; Roth & Brönnimann, 2013). Focus more on the information related to preventive measures and inevitabilities of quarantine instead of keeping track of dreadful data of increasing patients and mortality rate.

5.3 Spare quality time with family

Before the lockdown, people were striving hard to remain with their family members, but they hardly got the time, now this is the time when people can have quality time with their loved ones. People are having a good time with their kids by playing indoor games and involving in the routine day activities of kids resulting into better understanding with them. People also got the time to take care of their parents (The New Indian Express, 2020).

5.4 Focus on physical fitness

People usually elude to follow the schedule for physical fitness, sometimes because of busy work schedule or household responsibilities. This is the best time that can be utilized to take care of themselves. Indulge in some physical activity, go for a walk, take nutritious diet, and take a sound sleep by striking a balance between personal and professional life. Establish a routine for your work–life balance.

6 CONCLUSION

The study is a pioneer in the impact of corona virus, which reveals the overall impact of the corona virus on human, particularly to the workplace, which has rapidly gripped the entire globe. This paper explores the various peripherals of anxiety, stress, and disappointment among the working community in India, the psychological and biomedical research pertaining to the mental health, since the recent studies and trends seem to be overlooking, and the psychological loss and problems due to the pandemic. This conceptual paper is an effective tool for organizations, human resource managers, and concerned policy makers to address the issues related with the mental health of the workers. Since COVID‐19 has paralyzed the life of workers in all the spheres, this study could prove to be a game‐changer in motivating and enhancing the spirits of workers.

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Youth sports have been hit with few coronavirus outbreaks so far. Why is ice hockey so different?

Emily walpole

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“Whole hockey teams are getting quarantined,” said Bellemore, a hockey parent, coach and president of the Manchester Youth Regional Hockey Association. “It’s getting very real.”

State officials and other authorities have been scrambling to mitigate the damage: On Nov. 12, seven governors in the Northeast banded together to ban all interstate youth hockey until at least the end of the year. The following week, health officials in Minnesota, where hockey is associated with the most clusters of any youth sport, put all sports on “pause” for four weeks. Many others have imposed new restrictions and safety measures on the game.

Youth sports — soccer, basketball, cross-country, swimming, whether held indoors or out, a source of American pride, prestige and bonding — were among the first gatherings to be allowed post-lockdown. Organizers worked closely with public health officials to make modifications that balance safety with maintaining the spirit of the games. This has worked to some extent.

While public health officials suspect off-field interactions may be contributing to community spread, there’s little hard data. In most areas, there have been few to no documented outbreaks, much less superspreader events.

Ice hockey is an anomaly. Scientists are studying hockey-related outbreaks hoping to find clues about the ideal conditions in which the coronavirus thrives — and how to stop it. Experts speculate that ice rinks may trap the virus around head level in a rink that, by design, restricts airflow, temperature and humidity.

The hockey-related cases have been especially striking, epidemiologists have said, because clubs followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limits on gathering size and had numerous social distancing measures in place. In retrospect, one mistake by some clubs was that until recently masks had been required on ice for only the two players doing the initial faceoff for the puck — although many players wore clear face shields, which theoretically should have a similar effect.

“We’re watching hockey very carefully because it’s the first major sport that’s been played indoors predominantly and also during the winter months,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Demmer said the cases provide some of the first real-world evidence to support early theories about the importance of how people breathe, ventilation, and the social dimensions of transmission.

One critical way hockey differs from other contact team sports is how players do line changes — substitutions of groups of players — and are expected to sprint for nearly the whole time they are on the ice. Experts say it probably leads to heavier breathing, resulting in more particles being exhaled and inhaled.

Jose-Luis Jimenez, an air engineer at the University of Colorado, speculated that the spaces occupied by rinks keep the virus suspended, perhaps six to nine feet, just above the ice. Similar outbreaks have been documented in other chilly venues — meat processing factories and at a curling match earlier in the pandemic.

“I suspect the air is stratified,” he said. “Much like in a cold winter night, you have these inversions where the cold air with the virus which is heavier stays closer to the ground. That gives players many more chances to breathe it in.”

Timothy McDonald, public health director in Needham, Mass., said we should not rule out the way kids socialize — in locker rooms, carpools and postgame gatherings — as potential contributing factors. By late October, his area had seen at least six coronavirus cases related to sports clusters that span a wide range of ages, from fifth-graders to high school sophomores. He said some of those children played on multiple sports teams, including hockey.

“We’ve seen a lot of people mingling after the game or having discussions and parents talking and letting kids play around after the game,” he said. “There’s no way to tell from our perspective whether it’s on the ice — or waiting for 10 or 15 minutes while everyone talks after the game.”

Many unknowns

When schools shut down in March, there was huge confusion about the extent to which could get the virus and transmit it to others. Today, cases among those younger than 18 are soaring. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week that more than 1.3 million children had tested positive for coronavirus during the pandemic. Nearly 154,000 children tested positive from Nov. 19 to 26.

Epidemiologists are uncertain where most of these transmissions are occurring, but early reports from the United States, bolstered by more robust data from Europe and Asia, suggest they are unlikely to be related to school. Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University who has been tracking coronavirus outbreaks in schools, and others say they believe informal neighborhood get-togethers, youth sports and other activities may be contributing.

Rhode Island, for example, has reported that virtual-only learners are being infected at similar rates as those attending in-person school. Oster said infection rates seem to be going up nationwide, “whether schools are open or not.”

Joseph Allen, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he believes it was a mistake for school sports to shut down, because kids need physical activity, and some for-profit businesses filling the gaps may be operating in a way where “controls may not be as stringent.”

“Not having sports in schools ultimately leads to wider contact networks for many kids,” he explained.

David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the “disease reservoir was lower” related to children in the early fall, suggesting that sports played at that time — namely, soccer — weren’t contributing much to spread. “We saw very little transmission on the field of play,” he said.

“In winter sports, you now add the indoor element. And I think there’s a fair amount of concern that hockey certainly has transmission around the game,” he said.

A PolicyLab blog post last month recommended that if youth sports leagues want to preserve any opportunity to keep playing, they need to enact mandates that strictly curtail all off-field interaction. Even then, “the potential for on-field spread may be too overwhelming to continue safely with team competition during periods of widespread community transmission, and may need to be sacrificed to preserve in-school learning options, at least until early spring or transmission rates decrease substantially.”

When children’s sports started up again this summer, tensions flared among health officials, sports providers and families over which safety measures were necessary and which were over the top. In the pandemic world, soccer was sometimes played seven-on-seven instead of 11-on-11, and with kick-ins instead of throw-ins; basketball with every other spot in free-throw lineups empty; swim practices with some kids starting in the middle of lanes to ensure adequate spacing; cross-country with runners racing in small flights to minimize interactions.

But these modifications sent some families “jurisdiction shopping” to find places that allowed games to proceed as they had before the virus outbreak, and this was a part of what happened with hockey in New England.

Hockey culture

Ice hockey is part of the culture in this area of the country. Some kids get their first skates almost as soon as they can walk, and family weekends revolve around games. In the aftermath of the first wave of the virus, clubs in numerous states, including Massachusetts, introduced safety measures such as no checking at the younger levels, physical distancing in locker rooms, and masks for the two players doing the faceoffs.

Massachusetts Hockey President Bob Joyce said families who didn’t like those new rules took their children to play in neighboring states with fewer restrictions. And sometimes those players played on multiple teams or had siblings who did and went to school, creating very large social networks.

“It was a wake-up call,” Joyce said. He said state officials estimated that those 108 initial hockey cases amounted to 3,000 to 4,000 others potentially exposed.

In an October report, the CDC detailed a large outbreak in Florida among amateur adult hockey players on two teams that played each other but had no other contact. Investigators speculated that the indoor space and close contact increased the infection risk. They also pointed out that ice hockey “involves vigorous physical exertion accompanied by deep, heavy respiration, and during the game, players frequently move from the ice surface to the bench while still breathing heavily.”

Surrounded by plexiglass not only to prevent errant pucks but also to keep the airflow stable so the ice can remain cold, there’s little ventilation and humidity by design in ice rinks. The surface of the ice is kept around 20 degrees Fahrenheit; the ambient air temperature, in the 50s. The Department of Homeland Security has shown in lab experiments that the virus may live at those temperatures up to two times longer in the air. At 86 degrees, for example, 99 percent of the airborne virus is estimated to decay in 52 minutes. But at 50 degrees, it would take 109 minutes.

William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, said there is growing evidence that humidity may play an important role. In higher humidity, the virus attaches to bigger droplets that drop faster to the ground, decreasing the chance that someone will inhale them. The drier the air, the faster droplets will evaporate into smaller-size particles that stay in the air, increasing the concentration.

“There are some researchers have come to believe that humidification is the key above all,” he said.

Studies have shown that the virus doesn’t survive as long in the humid air, and that we’re more susceptible to viruses when the air is drier. Separately, epidemiological data from a long-term care facility has shown a correlation between lower humidity and higher infection rates.

Rubin, who is a pediatrician in addition to his public policy research job, said he worries those on the ice may be inhaling larger doses of the virus due to these environmental conditions, making it more likely they will become infected.

“It’s very hard to sort out, but you wonder if increased inoculum of the virus is an extra factor,” he said.

Demming expressed similar thoughts: “It could be infection rates are common across sports, but in a sport like hockey where you are trapping more virus in the breathable air it could result in more severe infections that end up being symptomatic.”

The National Hockey League was able to complete its playoffs after players were put in a bubble where they were tested each day, administered symptom checks and temperature screenings. No cases were reported. But conducting such rigorous screening on the roughly 650,000 amateur players and officials in the United States is an impossible task.

In Vermont, an outbreak at a single ice rink ripped through the center of the state, affecting at least 20 towns in at least four counties, and seeding other outbreaks at several schools. By Oct. 30, when Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) detailed the outbreak at a press briefing, 473 contacts had been associated with it.

“One case,” Scott emphasized, “can turn one event into many.”

For Tyler Amburgey, a 29-year-old coach in Lavon, Texas, north of Dallas, the coronavirus started out like a cold. But then it soon progressed to a headache, fatigue and shortness of breath. Authorities later determined that the outbreak spanned several teams and 30 people. By the third day of his illness, Aug. 29, several of Amburgey’s players had tested positive, and he was so ill that he canceled hockey practice.

Later that day his wife found him in his bed, unresponsive, and called 911. His heart had stopped, relatives told media outlets, and paramedics were unable to revive him.

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Weekly unemployment claims still trending up

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by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Weekly unemployment claims fell last week after the previous week’s spike, but have been trending up consistently the last two months. After being near their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, claims have increased beyond the usual seasonal slowdown. Claims fell 224 to 1,255 last week (up 131 from the same time last year).

As for the week’s ongoing jobless claims, for the week ending November 11, 2020, the Labor Department processed 11,337 claims, down 1,292 from the previous week and 7,237 more than the same time last year.

As for further comparison, initial Vermont claims for the week of March 21, 2020, were 3,784, up 3,125 from the week of March 14.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said at Governor Scott’s media briefing Friday that he has a lot of concern for the end of CARES Act funding and therefore the pandemic unemployment benefits and extended benefits for UI filers that came with it.

The extra benefits will cease the week after Christmas for nearly all those filers. Like the governor, he is hopeful that Congress will come up with what Scott called “bridge” funding for these programs until the Biden Administration and the new Congress can come up with a new CARES Act type funding plan. There does appear that some level of federal help will be forthcoming.

The governor is also hoping that funding includes budget relief for states, but he is less certain of that.

Harrington added that there are still some appeals and adjudications continuing regarding those pandemic benefits and that otherwise nearly all of the last of the emergency unemployment Lost Wages Assistance money has been distributed. The LWA was the last and smallest of the unemployment benefit programs.

The federal government portion of extra benefits, which is nearly all of the pandemic funding, must meet strict guidelines and there is very little the state can do to mitigate an issue.

The total number of unemployed is about 20,000, including the extra PUA claimants, which is down from the peak last spring of over 80,000 Vermonters getting some type of unemployment insurance.

There is recent discussion in Congress that a plan could be enacted during the “lame duck” session, but more likely after President-elect Biden is inaugurated.

Meanwhile, the state unemployment rate, which was the lowest in the nation before the pandemic, then spiked during the pandemic, has retreated and is now second lowest in the nation.

However, the VDOL points out that the US Census modeling has not caught up with the reality of the pandemic and Vermont’s 3.2 percent unemployment rate likely portrays a rosier economic picture than what actually exists.

Labor Commissioner Harrington said in late November that the real unemployment rate is more in the 5 percent range, and if it included the PUA, the rate is likely more in the 6-8 percent range.

He and Scott said that while the data the US Census collects is not erroneous, they disagree with the methodology the federal government is using given the altered behavior of people during the pandemic.

They said people have left the workforce for reasons related to the pandemic, like for personal safety or childcare, which then lowers the total Labor force, which works as the denominator in the calculations, thus lowering the unemployment rate.

Per federal rule, this ultimately decreases the ability of the state to offer extended UI benefits, as they were able earlier in the year.

Governor Scott said the state has been in contact with Vermont’s congressional delegation on trying to change the formula the US Census Bureau uses to determine the state’s unemployment rate.

There are also over 8,000 Vermonters on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (sole proprietors/self employed etc).

The PUA claims are not included in the unemployment rate calculation.

Harrington also addressed issues faced by the self-employed in collecting benefits.

If SPs did not file their tax returns by a certain time they missed out on some benefits. Harrington said this is a federal government rule. The state was allowed a 21-day grace period, but cases are still being adjudicated.

Also, another issue has been when a self-employed person received even one dollar of regular UI benefits, they are disallowed, again by federal rule Harrington said, from receiving any PUA.

For instance, some people who work for themselves also carry a part-time job. If they got laid off from that job and received any UI payments, then they’re stuck on the UI side and cannot get PUA.

The PUA benefits in some cases are more advantageous; for instance they will last through the end of this year. PUA claimants also can get partial payments even if they have some income.

What a new PUA looks like is unclear until and if one is signed into law. But it appears as of now that it might not include new filers after a certain time.

Scott has also extended his Emergency Order until December 15. He has said that he will continue to extend the Order as long as necessary and that we are “only half-way through” the impact of the novel coronavirus.

Also, the $1.25 billion CARES Act federal funds have all been allocated, though some budgetary shifting could still occur. The money must be spent by the end of December.

Also, the additional $600 in weekly benefits from the federal government for all unemployment programs ended July 25.

The PUA program, which is full funded by the federal government and is intended for non-regular UI workers, will last until the end of the year. They will receive regular benefits (but, again, not the extra $600).

“That $600 is concerning. I know a lot of families are counting on that to cover a lot of their expenses,” Scott said over the summer.

After a spike of claims at the beginning of the pandemic, followed by a steep decline as the economy began to reopen in April, initial unemployment claims fell consistently since the beginning of July before flattening over the last couple months.

Claims hit their peak in early April. At that point, Governor Scott’s “Stay Home” order resulted in the closing of schools, restaurants, construction and more, while many other industries cut back operations.

Over $500 million of federal money has been added to Vermont unemployment checks so far.

Since March 1, over 80,000 new claims have been filed in Vermont when including PUA.

The official Vermont March unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, but the April rate was 15.6 percent, which is the highest on record. The Vermont unemployment rate in May fell to 12.7 percent.

The US rate fell to 7.9 percent in September from 8.4 percent in August from 10.2 percent in July from 11.1 percent in June and in May from 13.3 percent. The US April rate was 14.7 percent, the highest rate since its was first calculated in 1948 and the highest unofficially since the Great Depression of about 25 percent.

Nationwide, according to the US Labor Department for the week ending November 28, initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled 712,000 last week, which was the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic and down from 787,000 the week before and 742,000 the week before that.

Claims generally have been falling since the early weeks of the pandemic in March. Early on in the pandemic, US claims reached 5.2 million and 6.6 million claims. Just prior to the steep job loss, there were 282,000 claims on March 14.

US GDP had its worst quarter on record as it fell 32.9 percent in the second quarter; the next worst was in 1921.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) has added to the ranks of those receiving benefits, but is not counted in the official unemployment rate. The PUA serves the self-employed who previously did not qualify to receive UI benefits and might still be working to some extent.

This surge during the Great Recession for the entire year in 2009 spiked at 38,081 claims.

The claims back in 2009 pushed the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund into deficit and required the state to borrow money from the federal government to cover claims.

Right now (see data below), Vermont has $252.2 million in its Trust Fund and saw the fund decrease by a net of $3.3 million last week. Payments lag claims typically by a week. Balance as of March 1 was $506,157,247.

Vermont at the beginning of the pandemic had more than double the UI Trust Fund it did when the economy started to slide in 2007. It went into deficit and the state had to borrow money from the federal government to pay claims. Some states like California are already in UI deficit because of the COVID crisis.

Scott said the UI fund is not expected to run out under current projections.

“We are in a much healthier position than many other states,” Labor Commissioner Harrington has said.

Given the Trust Fund’s strong performance and the burden of unemployment taxes on employers, Governor Scott reduced the UI tax on businesses. He also announced that starting the first week of July, the maximum unemployment benefit to workers will increase about $20 a week.

While the UI Trust Fund will not fall into deficit under current trends, the governor has acknowledged that they simply cannot predict it given how economic conditions could swing if there is a second surge of COVID-19.

Still, he’s moving forward with the UI changes now because the burden on employers and employees is now.

Stories:

Vermont’s unemployment rate falls to 3.2 percent in October

Over $100 million in recovery grants awarded, still more available

Businesses to see double-digit rate decrease in workers’ comp insurance in 2020

Tax revenues finish year nearly $60 million above targets

UI tax rates for employers fell again on July 1, 2018, as claims continue to be lower than previous projections. Individual employers’ reduced taxable wage rates will vary according to their experience rating; however, the rate reduction will lower the highest UI tax rate from 7.7 percent to 6.5 percent. The lowest UI tax rate will see a reduction from 1.1 percent to 0.8 percent.

Also effective July 1, 2018, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit will be indexed upwards to 57% of the average weekly wage. The current maximum weekly benefit amount is $466, which will increase to $498. Both changes are directly tied to the change in the Tax Rate Schedule.

The Vermont Department of Labor announced Thursday, October 1, 2020 an increase to the State’s minimum wage. Beginning January 1, 2021, the State’s minimum wage will increase $0.79, from $10.96 to $11.75 per hour. The calculation for this increase is in accordance with Act 86 of the 2019 Vermont General Assembly.

This adjustment also impacts the minimum wage of “tipped employees.” The Basic Tipped Wage Rate for service or tipped employees equals 50% of the full minimum wage or $5.88 per hour starting January 1, 2021.

The Vermont Department of Labor has announced that the state is set to trigger off of the High Extended Benefits program, as of October 10, 2020. This determination by the US Department of Labor follows the recent announcement of Vermont’s unemployment rate decreasing from 8.3% in July to 4.8% in August.

Vermont’s minimum wage rose to $10.78 on January 1, 2019.

The Unemployment Weekly Report can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/. Previously released Unemployment Weekly Reports and other UI reports can be found at: http://www.vtlmi.info/lmipub.htm#uc

NOTE: Employment (nonfarm payroll) – A count of all persons who worked full- or part-time or received pay from a nonagricultural employer for any part of the pay period which included the 12th of the month. Because this count comes from a survey of employers, persons who work for two different companies would be counted twice. Therefore, nonfarm payroll employment is really a count of the number of jobs, rather than the number of persons employed. Persons may receive pay from a job if they are temporarily absent due to illness, bad weather, vacation, or labor-management dispute. This count is based on where the jobs are located, regardless of where the workers reside, and is therefore sometimes referred to as employment “by place of work.” Nonfarm payroll employment data are collected and compiled based on the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, conducted by the Vermont Department of Labor. This count was formerly referred to as nonagricultural wage and salary employment.

UI claims by industry last week in Vermont are similar in percentage to those from a year ago, though of course much higher in number in each industrial category.

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Live updates: Walz urges Minnesotans to apply for COVID-19 housing assistance before Monday deadline

Emily walpole

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Here are the latest updates on COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Thursday, Dec. 3

  • MDH reported 92 COVID deaths on Thursday, the second highest in a single day
  • Minnesotans have until Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m. to request housing assistance
  • MSHSL sets tentative schedule for winter sports, depending on Gov. Tim Walz order
  • Hospital bed use down across Minnesota
  • Officials say we are at the endgame of the pandemic with upcoming vaccines
  • Experts concerned about possible surge after Thanksgiving travel, gatherings

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are urging Minnesotans to draw upon state aid for their end-of-year housing bills.

In a media call at 1 p.m. Gov. Walz highlighted efforts to “ensure Minnesotans can afford to stay in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Minnesotans can apply for housing assistance through the United Way by calling 211. The deadline is Monday. Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Walz pointed out that Minnesota is still in the heart of the pandemic, with the second-highest daily death toll of 92 announced on Thursday.

“Throughout this entire epidemic we’ve asked Minnesotans to sacrifice,” Walz said. “We’ve asked them to do things that put their own financial security somewhat at risk, to help protect others.”

The governor said he understands that some people don’t have a safe place to go, or they’re in danger of losing that safe place, when they’re asked to stay home.

“A lot of folks are in a situation where housing security is a real concern through no fault of their own,” Walz said.

Lt. Gov. Flanagan said she is a renter and paid her rent on Tuesday. But she knows that some Minnesotans are deciding between paying their rent or mortgage, and buying groceries.

“I want folks to know that there are still resources available to help you and your family,” she said.

Flanagan said home owners should ask their lenders if they can defer payment for up to a year. And anyone can apply for housing assistance via 211unitedway.org, or by calling 211, before the deadline of Monday, Dec. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Those who don’t need assistance should consider giving to the nonprofits that are helping others, Flanagan said, and telling their friends and family about the assistance that’s available.

“We cannot stop until all Minnesotans have a safe and affordable place to live,” Flanagan said.

Emily Bastian, vice president of ending homelessness at Minnesota nonprofit Avivo, spoke about efforts to support the people living in homeless encampments in the Twin Cities.

“There is no one path from homelessness to permanent housing,” she said.

Bastian emphasized the importance of state and local governments partnering with the nonprofit sector to make that support possible.

Gov. Walz said it’s important to recognize the humanity in those experiencing homelessness, “not seeing it as a problem that we wish would just go away.”

The governor also said that the last week has given him hope that there will be a federal COVID-19 relief package.

There’s $100 million available in Minnesota’s Housing Assistance Program, which was announced in July. Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said there are currently requests for $67 million in assistance as of the end of November. That means there’s a little over $30 million left to dole out, and she hopes many people will still request assistance with December rent.

“We’ve got room for one more big push here to pay December bills,” she said.

Ho said that the reason the program is closing on Dec. 7 is so that state officials have time to go through all the applications, allocate funds, and then potentially reallocate any leftover money.

COVID-19 is continuing to take a significant number of lives in Minnesota, with 92 new fatalities reported by state health officials on Thursday

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic began, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,784. Thursday’s near-record comes just one day after the third-highest daily death toll of 77.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 6,166 new coronavirus cases were reported Thursday, based on results from 50,718 tests (45,885 PCR, 4,833 antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 333,626 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations due to the coronavirus in Minnesota are continuing a downward trend. COVID-19 patients are currently using 1,394 non-ICU beds across the state – 29 fewer than the day prior, and 376 ICU beds – nine fewer than the previous day. Metro bed availability has improved from 1.9% to 2.3%, and ICU bed availability in the metro has grown from 4.5% to 5.7%.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,623, with 3,911 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

COVID-19 case rates now put 86 of 87 Minnesota counties under full distance learning recommendations from MDH, although community spread is only one factor of many schools are instructed to use to determine their learning model.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (62,312 cases) followed by a known contact (55,953 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (26,100 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases with 35,289 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 30,360 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 712 in 4,244 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 70,069 cases and 1,145 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 29,459 cases and 521 deaths, Dakota County with 23,564 cases and 198 deaths and Anoka County with 23,541 cases and 236 fatalities.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 80 cases and no deaths.

On Wednesday, Governor Tim Walz, Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and several first responders spoke to Minnesotans to address the way the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted public safety and emergency response.

Walz said that he hopes to highlight aspects of everyday life that are impacted by the pandemic that many Minnesotans may not typically  consider. According to Walz, the workforce of firefighters, police officers and paramedics in Minnesota has been affected by COVID-19, which can impact their ability to respond to emergencies.

Harrington emphasized that this is a statewide issue, and that he is hearing every day from fire departments and police departments that are having staffing issues due to COVID-19.

He added that fire departments have been hit particularly hard.

“Ninety-nine out of the 500 fire departments in the state of Minnesota have had major COVID outbreaks,” he said. “That’s 20%.”

He stressed that the state has worked to rearrange resources and take precautions to keep departments staffed, but it won’t take much to take those departments out of service if communities do not wear masks, avoid gatherings and social distance.

Eagan Police Chief Roger New said that his department has followed CDC guidelines since the pandemic began, but he has still seen 20% of his staff take time off due to COVID-19 quarantines at some point since March, including one staff member who was hospitalized and took two months to fully recover.

Jay Wood, a firefighter in Plato, said that the Plato Fire Department has also carefully followed guidelines, but an outbreak that affected over three quarters of the department forced them to take the department out of service for a time.

“We are not alone as a small department of dealing with the virus and the staffing issues it has presented to us,” he said. “Minnesota fire services are always here to help the public, and people always ask how they can help us. The biggest thing you can do is follow the guidelines the governor and the Department of Health have set for us.”

Paramedic Ross Chavez echoed this, urging Minnesotans to follow advice from health experts to help keep first responders in the community healthy so they can continue providing fast and effective emergency services.

“Please, help my colleagues and me be there for those who need us, especially this holiday season during these trying times,” Chavez said.

Walz said that for Minnesotans frustrated by other community members not following these guidelines, he does not want to shame anyone, but it is a “moral hazard” to not wear a mask and go to large gatherings.

“We’re not going to be able to arrest everybody, that was certainly never our intention,” he said. “You don’t have to follow these rules because I said so, you don’t have to follow them because you don’t like government. You should follow them because they’re the right thing to do, they protect lives.”

Walz added that by next Tuesday, he hopes he and state health officials will have a clear timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she expects the FDA will issue an emergency use authorization on Dec. 11, and that the first wave of vaccinations could begin as soon as a week or so later.

Walz said he understands concerns around safety of the vaccine, but his assessment has been that the federal government has done a “fantastic job” of the vaccine development.

However, he stressed that though the excitement around the vaccine may indicate that the pandemic is over, we are still “in the teeth of it.”

“Let’s make sure we get all of our neighbors there, and protect those folks that make a difference,” he said.

The resurgence of COVID-19 in Minnesota is proving deadly, as underscored by 77 new fatalities reported by state health officials Wednesday.

Those deaths are the second highest single-day total since the pandemic came to Minnesota, only behind the 101 deaths reported the Friday after Thanksgiving. The total number of lives lost in the state now sits at 3,692.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says 5,192 new coronavirus cases were reported Wednesday, based on results from 42,737 tests (39,912 PCR, 2,825 Antigen) processed in private and state labs.

A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed case, while a positive Antigen test is considered probable.

Minnesota now reports 327,477 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

In a bit of positive news, hospital bed use is down after a surge in recent days. Coronavirus patients are currently using 1,350 non-ICU beds, down 104 from Tuesday, and 354 ICU beds across the state are being used for COVID patients, down 40 from a day ago.

The total number of patients hospitalized since COVID hit Minnesota is 17,378, with 3,873 of those requiring treatment in the ICU.

Leading causes of exposure for those who have tested positive include community exposure with no known contact (60,808 cases) followed by a known contact (54,554 cases) and exposure through a congregate care setting (25,695 cases).

Young people 20 to 24 make up the largest group of cases by a significant margin with 34,806 and two deaths, followed by those 25 to 29 with 29,876 and four deaths. The greatest number of fatalities involves people 85 to 89 with 691 in 4,156 confirmed cases.

Hennepin County has the most recorded COVID activity with 68,898 cases and 1,130 deaths, followed by Ramsey County with 28,948 cases and 512 deaths, Anoka County with 23,196 cases and 232 fatalities, and Dakota County with 23,102 cases and 194 deaths.

Cook County in northeastern Minnesota has the least amount of COVID activity with 79 cases and no deaths.

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