Keith Binder worked at Beercade in Benson until regulations put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus closed bars in the metro area. “It’s terrifying,” he said of being unemployed. “I’m a bartender. I don’t have a vast amount of savings.”

LINCOLN — Keith Binder felt a little bit of relief when he lost his job last week.

It ended more than a week of worrying about how long the spread of the coronavirus would allow him to keep working as a bartender at Beercade in Benson.

The tipping point turned out to be Gov. Pete Ricketts’ directive to limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The governor’s call was in line with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

Beercade closed the next day, and Binder, 37, joined thousands of Nebraskans who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut because of economic havoc wreaked by the potentially deadly virus. Restaurants, bars, hotels, retail, travel, gyms and events-related businesses have been hit especially hard.

“It’s terrifying,” Binder said. “I’m a bartender. I don’t have a vast amount of savings.”

It will take time to see the full scope of the job losses. Initial unemployment claims in Nebraska jumped to 799 as of March 14, up 33% from the previous week. State officials will not release last week’s initial claims numbers until Thursday, in keeping with a federal request for delay.

But the Nebraska Department of Labor saw a “large surge” in claims last week, according to State Labor Commissioner John Albin.

Nationally, the Bank of America predicted that 3 million people will have filed new claims for unemployment benefits by this week because of economic turmoil related to the coronavirus.

To help laid-off workers and slow the virus’ spread, Ricketts has waived some of the usual requirements for unemployment benefits. Workers now can get benefits if they are unpaid because of the coronavirus, including time spent in quarantine because of potential exposure.

Workers do not have to take an unpaid week, meaning benefits can start with the week they apply, and they are not required to search for work. Employers are not being charged for benefits paid to people whose unemployment is tied to the coronavirus.

The governor’s executive order applies to claims filed from March 22 through May 2. But Labor Department spokeswoman Grace Johnson said the department will accommodate coronavirus-related claims filed earlier. She said those claims will be identified through the process of determining eligibility.

“We understand this is a time of uncertainty for all Nebraskans, and we are here to support workers and employers as they navigate this challenging situation,” Albin said.

Enhanced unemployment benefits are part of the $2 trillion stimulus package being considered by Congress. Details were not immediately available.

Binder filed his first claim for unemployment benefits last week. But he’s worried about how he will pay his rent and other bills. He shares an apartment with other bartenders, so all are out of work. He does commercial photography on the side, but that business has dried up as well.

Claims processing typically takes about 21 days, and workers are paid half of their weekly earnings, up to $440 a week.

“I’m not holding out much hope it’s going to help people as much as it could,” Binder said. “I wasn’t struggling when I was working, but this isn’t something that is going away anytime soon.”

Derek Dillon, 31, got in a few more days of work before his job ended last week at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Omaha.

Until Thursday, he had been the creative director at the movie theater, choosing the movies that would run and doing marketing for the theater. The business closed March 16 after the 10-person directive came out. He stayed on to help make sure the theater would be ready to go when it could open again.

“It was a dream job. I’m a huge lover of movies,” he said. “Now I’m in the same boat with a ton of other people. I’m just grateful to have a roof over my head and food on the table for now.”

Dillon started exploring part-time jobs immediately but held off filing an unemployment claim to make sure he qualified for the coronavirus waivers.

The number of workers filing claims overwhelmed the state unemployment website at times Monday, and Ricketts apologized because the site had not been updated to account for the waivers. He said fixes had been made by Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile, calls inundated the unemployment claim center phone banks, leading to long wait times and disconnections.

Albin said the Labor Department has nearly doubled its claims processing staff, going from 34 to 66 workers to handle the surge. Officials said staff have been reassigned and workers are putting in more overtime to try to meet the demand.

Along with traditional unemployment, the department offers a new program to help people whose hours have been cut. The Short-Time Compensation program allows employers to avoid layoffs by reducing hours between 10% and 60% across the board. The program pays prorated benefits to employees for the lost hours.

Both Binder and Dillon said they hope to go back to the jobs they had, once crowds can gather again at places like bars and theaters.

But both said they may have to move on, depending on how long restrictions related to the virus continue and how quickly businesses bounce back. While some sectors of the economy are hurting, other employers are looking to hire.

Grocery stores, online retailers and big box stores are among the businesses searching for workers. Some sectors, such as health care and corrections, were struggling to fill vacancies earlier and are still looking.

“I would rather continue at Alamo,” Dillon said. “But you really have to try to take care of yourself.”

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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