1.3 million people applied for unemployment insurance last week: Policymakers must pass crucial relief and recovery measures

by nyljaouadi1
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This morning the Department of Labor (DOL) released the first official economic data collected during the Biden presidency—initial unemployment insurance claims from last week (well, half of last week was in the Biden presidency). What it shows is that Biden inherited an extremely weak labor market.

Another 1.3 million people applied for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits last week, including 847,000 people who applied for regular state UI and 427,000 who applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). The 1.3 million who applied for UI last week was a decrease of 87,000 from the prior week, but the four-week moving average of total initial claims ticked up by 45,000. The four-week moving average of total initial claims has risen back to roughly where it was in mid-October.

Last week was the 45th straight week total initial claims were greater than the worst week of the Great Recession. (If that comparison is restricted to regular state claims—because we didn’t have PUA in the Great Recession—initial claims last week were still greater than the second-worst week of the Great Recession.) I should note that throughout this post I use seasonally adjusted data where I can, but for comparisons to the Great Recession I use not-seasonally-adjusted data, since DOL’s improved seasonal adjustments aren’t available before the week ending Aug. 29, 2020.

Most states provide just 26 weeks of regular benefits, meaning many workers are exhausting their regular state UI benefits. In the most recent data (the week ending Jan. 16), continuing claims for regular state benefits dropped by 203,000. After a worker exhausts regular state benefits, they can move onto Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which is an additional 24 weeks of regular state UI (the December COVID-19 relief bill increased the number of weeks of PEUC eligibility by 11, from 13 to 24).

In the most recent data available for PEUC, the week ending Jan. 9, PEUC claims rose by 837,000. This increase partially reversed the prior week’s drop, which was due to the temporary lapse in pandemic UI programs before Trump signed the December COVID-19 relief bill. But we can expect them to continue to rise further in coming weeks. Over 3.5 million people had exhausted the original 13 weeks of PEUC by the end of December (see column C43 in form ETA 5159 for PEUC here). These workers are eligible for the additional 11 weeks, but they need to recertify. PEUC numbers will continue to swell as this occurs.

Continuing claims for PUA increased by 1.6 million in the latest data, the week ending Jan. 9. The large jump in PUA almost fully reverses the prior week’s drop, which was also due to the temporary lapse described above. The December bill extended the total weeks of PUA eligibility by 11, from 39 to 50 weeks. As workers who exhausted PUA before the extensions were signed get back on PUA, we can expect the PUA numbers to swell further.

The 11-week extensions of PEUC and PUA just kick the can down the road—they are not long enough. Congress must pass further extensions before mid-March or millions will exhaust benefits at that time, when the virus is still rampant and the labor market is still weak.

Figure A shows continuing claims in all programs over time (the latest data are for Jan. 9). As described above, the recent volatility in PUA and PEUC is due to temporary lapses in those programs before Trump signed the December bill. Continuing claims are currently nearly 16 million above where they were a year ago.

Continuing unemployment claims in all programs, March 23, 2019–January 9, 2021: *Use caution interpreting trends over time because of reporting issues (see below)*

Date Regular state UI PEUC PUA Other programs (mostly EB and STC)
2019-03-23 1,905,627 31,510
2019-03-30 1,858,954 31,446
2019-04-06 1,727,261 30,454
2019-04-13 1,700,689 30,404
2019-04-20 1,645,387 28,281
2019-04-27 1,630,382 29,795
2019-05-04 1,536,652 27,937
2019-05-11 1,540,486 28,727
2019-05-18 1,506,501 27,949
2019-05-25 1,519,345 26,263
2019-06-01 1,535,572 26,905
2019-06-08 1,520,520 25,694
2019-06-15 1,556,252 26,057
2019-06-22 1,586,714 25,409
2019-06-29 1,608,769 23,926
2019-07-06 1,700,329 25,630
2019-07-13 1,694,876 27,169
2019-07-20 1,676,883 30,390
2019-07-27 1,662,427 28,319
2019-08-03 1,676,979 27,403
2019-08-10 1,616,985 27,330
2019-08-17 1,613,394 26,234
2019-08-24 1,564,203 27,253
2019-08-31 1,473,997 25,003
2019-09-07 1,462,776 25,909
2019-09-14 1,397,267 26,699
2019-09-21 1,380,668 26,641
2019-09-28 1,390,061 25,460
2019-10-05 1,366,978 26,977
2019-10-12 1,384,208 27,501
2019-10-19 1,416,816 28,088
2019-10-26 1,420,918 28,576
2019-11-02 1,447,411 29,080
2019-11-09 1,457,789 30,024
2019-11-16 1,541,860 31,593
2019-11-23 1,505,742 29,499
2019-11-30 1,752,141 30,315
2019-12-07 1,725,237 32,895
2019-12-14 1,796,247 31,893
2019-12-21 1,773,949 29,888
2019-12-28 2,143,802 32,517
2020-01-04 2,245,684 32,520
2020-01-11 2,137,910 33,882
2020-01-18 2,075,857 32,625
2020-01-25 2,148,764 35,828
2020-02-01 2,084,204 33,884
2020-02-08 2,095,001 35,605
2020-02-15 2,057,774 34,683
2020-02-22 2,101,301 35,440
2020-02-29 2,054,129 33,053
2020-03-07 1,973,560 32,803
2020-03-14 2,071,070 34,149
2020-03-21 3,410,969 36,758
2020-03-28 8,158,043 0 52,494 48,963
2020-04-04 12,444,309 3,802 69,537 64,201
2020-04-11 16,249,334 31,426 216,481 89,915
2020-04-18 17,756,054 63,720 1,172,238 116,162
2020-04-25 21,723,230 91,724 3,629,986 158,031
2020-05-02 20,823,294 173,760 6,361,532 175,289
2020-05-09 22,725,217 252,257 8,120,137 216,576
2020-05-16 18,791,926 252,952 11,281,930 226,164
2020-05-23 19,022,578 546,065 10,010,509 247,595
2020-05-30 18,548,442 1,121,306 9,597,884 259,499
2020-06-06 18,330,293 885,802 11,359,389 325,282
2020-06-13 17,552,371 783,999 13,093,382 336,537
2020-06-20 17,316,689 867,675 14,203,555 392,042
2020-06-27 16,410,059 956,849 12,308,450 373,841
2020-07-04 17,188,908 964,744 13,549,797 495,296
2020-07-11 16,221,070 1,016,882 13,326,206 513,141
2020-07-18 16,691,210 1,122,677 13,259,954 518,584
2020-07-25 15,700,971 1,193,198 10,984,864 609,328
2020-08-01 15,112,240 1,262,021 11,504,089 433,416
2020-08-08 14,098,536 1,376,738 11,221,790 549,603
2020-08-15 13,792,016 1,381,317 13,841,939 469,028
2020-08-22 13,067,660 1,434,638 15,164,498 523,430
2020-08-29 13,283,721 1,547,611 14,786,785 490,514
2020-09-05 12,373,201 1,630,711 11,808,368 529,220
2020-09-12 12,363,489 1,832,754 12,153,925 510,610
2020-09-19 11,561,158 1,989,499 10,686,922 589,652
2020-09-26 10,172,332 2,824,685 10,978,217 579,582
2020-10-03 8,952,580 3,334,878 10,450,384 668,691
2020-10-10 8,038,175 3,711,089 10,622,725 615,066
2020-10-17 7,436,321 3,983,613 9,332,610 778,746
2020-10-24 6,837,941 4,143,389 9,433,127 746,403
2020-10-31 6,452,002 4,376,847 8,681,647 806,430
2020-11-07 6,037,690 4,509,284 9,147,753 757,496
2020-11-14 5,890,220 4,569,016 8,869,502 834,740
2020-11-21 5,213,781 4,532,876 8,555,763 741,078
2020-11-28 5,766,130 4,801,408 9,244,556 834,685
2020-12-05 5,457,941 4,793,230 9,271,112 841,463
2020-12-12 5,393,839 4,810,334 8,453,940 937,972
2020-12-19 5,205,841 4,491,413 8,383,387 1,070,810
2020-12-26 5,347,440 4,166,261 7,442,888 1,450,438
2021-01-02 5,727,359 3,026,952 5,707,397 1,526,887
2021-01-09 5,446,086 3,863,548 7,334,193 1,638,263
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