About 1.5 million people filed for state unemployment benefits last week, the Department of Labor announced Thursday, bringing the 13-week total for first-time claims to more than 45 million. Another 760,000 filed new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a temporary program for workers such as independent contractors who ordinarily do not qualify for unemployment payments.
While new jobless claims continue to decline, falling for the 11th straight week, the numbers remain startlingly high relative to previous recessions, and some economists have expressed concerns that the labor market is not healing as rapidly as they had hoped.
“It’s not clear why claims are still so high,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a note to clients. “[I]s it the initial shock still working its way up through businesses away from the consumer-facing jobs lost in the first wave, or is it businesses which thought they could survive now throwing in the towel, or both?”
Shepherdson said the numbers suggest the economic recovery “is going to take a long time,” and expressed concern that the job market is still in such rough shape just weeks before the $600 weekly boost to unemployment befits is scheduled to expire.
Digging Into the Unemployment Numbers
With the labor market in a state of unprecedented turmoil, the data is coming in so quickly that it can be difficult to see the clear trendlines. Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute attempted to straighten out some of the crooked lines in a blog post Thursday.
In particular, Shierholz argued that delays in filing, processing and reporting jobless claims – along with the confusing two-tiered system of state and federal benefit payments – make it hard to get a handle on how many people are currently receiving unemployment benefits. While the Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of people receiving unemployment benefits has plateaued at 20.5 million, there are millions more in limbo as they wait for their applications to be processed.
By Shierholz’s calculations (see the chart below for a summary), about 34.5 million people are either receiving benefits – including 9.3 million in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program – or are in process within the system. That means that “more than one in five workers are either on unemployment benefits or are waiting to get on,” Shierholz said.