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Tens of thousands of South Carolinians continue to apply for unemployment

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Apple Store (copy) (copy)

The number of new unemployment applicants in South Carolina has declined in recent weeks, but tens of thousands of people continue to sign up for jobless benefits even as businesses such as the Apple store in Charleston (above) began to reopen. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The number of South Carolinians applying for unemployment checks continued to decline in recent weeks, but the state is still fielding far more requests for jobless benefits than before the coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly 29,446 laid-off or furloughed workers submitted a new application for unemployment insurance in South Carolina between May 10 and May 16. 

That's well below the 89,147 who filed an unemployment claim during the first full week of April. But it's still dramatically higher than the number of claimants South Carolina was handling before the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March. 

Prior to the public health crisis, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce was handling on average a little more than 2,000 unemployment claims per week. 

The fact that South Carolina is still fielding tens of thousands of new claims suggests the sharp economic downturn could have longer lasting effects on the state's workforce. 

Roughly 254,670 continued to pull from the state's unemployment insurance trust fund as of May 9, which is the most recent data available. That's still a large chunk of South Carolina's workforce. 

In recent weeks, Gov. Henry McMaster began lifting many of the emergency orders he put in place to fight the spread of the virus. 

As a result, retail stores are operating again. Dentists are seeing patients. Restaurants are serving diners on outdoor patios. Barber shops and hair salons are finally taking walk-ins and scheduling appointments. 

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Those openings are likely responsible for the reduced demand for unemployment benefits currently. 

But it's not clear yet whether all of the business that existed in South Carolina at the beginning of this year will return now that the public health restrictions are lifted. 

The tourism and hospitality industries could be especially vulnerable right now. They rely on visitors, and it's yet to be seen whether people's travel plans change as the virus continues to spread throughout the United States. 

As the recovery gets under way, DEW will need to continue to shell out money to people who remain out of work. The agency announced on Thursday that it paid out $1.35 billion in state and federal money to unemployment applicants since March. 

Some idled workers had to wait weeks to start receiving that money. But DEW reassured applicants this week that they would receive any money they were due. 

“Throughout the duration of this crisis, our priority is processing claims and backdating payments appropriately," Dan Ellzey, DEW's director, said in a statement. "We want to reassure all claimants that if and when they are found eligible, critical payments will be paid to them." 

Ellzey's agency will provide more details about the extent of the damage the pandemic has wreaked on the South Carolina job market early Friday, when it releases unemployment numbers for April.

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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