2.1 million new unemployment claims filed last week, as workers still struggle to get benefits

The ten-week total for claims reached 40.8 million, suggesting about a quarter of the workforce has lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers filed 2.1 million new unemployment claims last week, the Department of Labor reported, suggesting about a quarter of the workforce is seeking jobless aid to weather the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus. 

The latest figure indicates that the pandemic has pushed 40.8 million Americans out of work in just 10 weeks.

DOL also reported that another 1.2 million people applied for benefits under the new temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programcreated for individuals who are typically ineligible for unemployment insurance, such as self-employed workers.

With those people added, the number of claims filed last week could be as high as 3.1 million, though there could be some overlap between the new program and traditional unemployment benefits.

“The pace of flooding has declined, but the labor market is still underwater,” Nick Bunker, Indeed Hiring Lab’s director of economic research, said in reaction to the numbers. He said the raw unadjusted number of new claims reported last week is still 15 times higher than pre-coronavirus levels.

California saw the highest number of new claims last week, reporting an estimated 212,343 new applications filed. New York followed with an estimated 192,193 new claims. 

Roughly half of those who applied for benefits since the beginning of the pandemic are now receiving them, according to Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. But legal advocates and worker groups complain that workers in many states are still facing long waits, glitches and little assistance in accessing the aid from state agencies, leading applicants in some cases, to give up. 

Three Uber and Lyft drivers, along with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, filed a federal complaint this week against the state of New York, alleging the length of time it’s taking the state to process their claims compared to other workers has been “devastating.”

Behnaz Mansouri, an attorney at the Unemployment Law Project in Washington state, said roughly 60,000 people who’ve filed claims there are still waiting to receive benefits. She said self-employed workers are facing the greatest hurdles in getting jobless aid from the new federal program.

“They’re not only getting requests for more information they’re getting conflicting requests” for employment information, Mansouri said. “And these claimants don’t know what to do.” 

In Florida, where the state inspector general has launched a probe into its error-ridden unemployment assistance system, the state says about 83 percentof the 1.9 million claims its verified have been processed, an improvement from the less than 6 percent it reported mid-April

But Laurie Yadoff, an attorney at Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, said her clients complain their applications are still “pending” and are still unable to get through to state unemployment offices for assistance. 

“It’s been a tremendous struggle and a couple of my clients I have to keep calling them and telling them to hang in there,” Yadoff said. “They just keep saying, ‘What’s the point?’”

And not every state has implemented the new unemployment programs provided under the massive coronavirus relief package signed into law in March. 

According to DOL, so far, only 32 states have begun paying out the 13-week extension of unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act. Most states provide an average of 26 weeks of jobless benefits. 

While the number of Americans seeking jobless benefits has slowly declined over the past several weeks, economists forecast that the share of the workforce out of a job will remain high throughout the summer. 

“Although initial claims are declining, the pace may only be plateauing,” Glassdoor Senior Economist Daniel Zhao said in a statement. “If UI claims remain in the millions for the next few weeks, it may signal that relaxed state-mandated restrictions alone aren’t enough to staunch the flow of unemployed Americans.”

Kevin Hassett, senior economic adviser to President Donald Trump predicted the unemployment rate could potentially shoot north of 20 percent in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May jobs report out June 5. He expects the jobless rate will continue to climb in June, “but then after that it should start to trend down,” he told CNN on Sunday.

Despite warnings from economists that unemployment could remain high into the end of next year, Republicans in Congress have made clear that they won’t support expanding the enhanced unemployment insurance benefits provided under one of the coronavirus rescue bills.

Democrats want to extend that weekly $600 boost to unemployment insurance payments through the end of January. It is currently due to expire at the end of July.

Instead, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said Tuesday the Trump administration “may well” support including a bonus to get workers back on the job in the next coronavirus aid package. He argues the enhanced unemployment payments are so high that they act as a “major disincentive to go back to work.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

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