MONTGOMERY — Thousands of Alabamians are filing for unemployment benefits, sometimes overwhelming the state application system, as the coronavirus pandemic causes workplaces to close temporarily or reduce operations.

Nearly 17,000 people filed unemployment claims over just two days — Sunday and Monday— according to preliminary numbers from Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison.

Health officials have acknowledged the economic cost of mandatory closures but say they're crucial to slow the outbreak as caseloads grow exponentially, threatening to overwhelm hospitals. People can be contagious without showing symptoms and spend days infecting others before falling ill.

"I want to be very clear: This is a matter of life and death," Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson said Sunday in announcing the closures of nonessential businesses in that county.

Most of the unemployment claims were listed as related to the COVID-19 outbreak, Hutchison said, and many of the new cases are believed to be from the hospitality industry.

A total of 9,347 claims were filed the week that ended March 20, up from 1,434 claims the previous week that ended March 13. The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.

In Alabama, people either apply by phone line or through the online system. Hutchinson said they are aware that sometimes people have had trouble getting through on the telephone system.

"Patience and understanding are appreciated. Know we hear your concerns and are working to address them," Hutchinson said. To help the process, the state is waiving charges against employers who file partial unemployment compensation claims on behalf of their employees.

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