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Workers place food in the trunks of cars in an alley behind the Capitol District in Omaha in late April. Volunteers distributed food to employees of the Capitol District who aren’t working because of the coronavirus.

LINCOLN — Another 6,408 newly jobless Nebraskans filed for unemployment last week, adding to the record-breaking toll of the coronavirus.

The number of people filing initial claims was almost equal to the previous week and reflects continued economic disruption from the pandemic even as Gov. Pete Ricketts allowed some businesses to reopen.

Restaurants, hair salons, barbershops and other close-contact businesses were able to open with restrictions in 59 counties, including the Omaha metro area, on May 4. Ten other counties followed on Monday and four more on Wednesday.

Nationally, almost 3 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits for the first time last week as the viral outbreak led more companies to slash jobs — even though most states have begun to let some businesses reopen. Roughly 36 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the two months since the coronavirus pandemic started to cause business closures.

In Iowa, first-time unemployment claims dropped to 16,735 from 23,241 the week before.

The new Nebraska filings were more than eight times the pre-pandemic weekly level. New jobless claims peaked during the week that ended April 4 at almost 27,000.

The number of people seeking benefits overwhelmed the Nebraska Department of Labor, leading to a slowdown in getting claims processed. Complaints mounted as bills came due and frustrated workers were unable to get answers about their claims.

State Labor Commissioner John Albin said Thursday that the department is gaining ground on the backlog of claims, although he acknowledged that progress has not been as fast as he wanted.

“We’re moving a lot faster on getting the claims brought up to date,” he said, adding that he believes that the state will be caught up within a week or two.

He said there are 21,862 pending claims out of about 109,000 filed since the middle of March. Of those, about 8,000 were filed more than 28 days ago. Albin said those older claims are “getting first priority” for processing. A number of older claims were cleared up after Ricketts signed an executive order allowing the department to skip contacting all but a worker’s most recent previous employer.

Claims filed by self-employed and gig workers also took longer because they required software changes. Those workers are not eligible for traditional benefits but could get payments under federal coronavirus relief legislation.

Another group that has been forced to wait are workers who had been on unemployment before the pandemic and have exhausted their benefits. Although the federal legislation provided a 13-week extension for unemployment benefits, Albin said the software for those extra weeks has not been available. He said it should be done Friday.

The state signed a $1.7 million contract with Nelnet, a Lincoln-based company, for 100 more people to handle claims. The state also signed a $1.3 million contract with Omaha’s North End Teleservices for 36 people to help handle phone calls and answer live chat inquiries. Ricketts said Thursday that the live chat feature has been taken down because it was not working right.

In light of the unusual circumstances, Ricketts has waived some normal requirements for unemployment claims. Under those waivers, workers do not have to take an unpaid week before benefits can begin, and they are not required to search for work. Employers are not being charged for benefits paid to their former employees if the layoff was because of the coronavirus.

The waivers originally took effect March 22 and were to expire June 1. The governor has since revised the dates so that the waivers apply to claims filed starting March 15. They now apply through Aug. 1.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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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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