Over a million people still filed initial unemployment claims last week with no COVID-19 relief in sight

by nyljaouadi1
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Another 1.1 million people applied for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits last week, including 751,000 people who applied for regular state UI and 363,000 who applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is the federal program that provides up to 39 weeks of benefits for workers who are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance, like the self-employed. Without congressional action, PUA will expire in less than two months (more on that below).

The 1.1 million who applied for UI last week was little changed (a decline of 3,000) from the prior week’s revised figures. Last week was the 33rd straight week total initial claims were far 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 3.6 times where they were a year ago.)

Most states provide 26 weeks of regular benefits, but this crisis has gone on much longer than that. That means many workers are exhausting their regular state UI benefits. In the most recent data, continuing claims for regular state UI dropped by 538,000, from 7.8 million to 7.3 million.

For now, after an individual exhausts regular state benefits, they can move onto Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which is an additional 13 weeks of regular state UI. However, PEUC is set to expire in less than two months (more on that below).

In the latest data available for PEUC (the week ending October 17), PEUC rose by 278,000, from 3.7 million to 4.0 million, offsetting only 46% of the 602,000 decline in continuing claims for regular state benefits for the same week. The small increase in PEUC relative to the decline in continuing claims for regular state UI is likely due in large part to administrative delays workers are facing getting onto PEUC. Further, many of the roughly 2 million workers who were on UI before the recession began, or who are in states with less than the standard 26 weeks of regular state benefits, are exhausting PEUC benefits. Nearly a million workers (972,000) had exhausted PEUC by the end of September, the latest exhaustion data available in most states (see column C43 in form ETA 5159 for PEUC here).

Department of Labor (DOL) data suggest that right now, 22.8 million workers are either on unemployment benefits or have applied recently and are waiting to get approved (see Figure A). However, that number is an overestimate. For one thing, initial claims for regular state UI and PUA should be nonoverlapping—that is how DOL has directed state agencies to report them—but some individuals are erroneously being counted as being in both programs. An even bigger issue is that states are including retroactive payments in their continuing PUA claims, which would also lead to double-counting. All this means nobody knows exactly how many people are receiving UI benefits right now, which is another reminder that we need to invest heavily in our UI infrastructure and technology.

DOL numbers indicate that 22.8 million workers are either receiving unemployment benefits or have applied and are waiting to see if they will get benefits (as of October 31, 2020): *But caution, this is an overestimate due to reporting issues (see below)*

Regular state UI: Continued claims PEUC: Continued claims Regular state UI: Initial claims PUA: Continued claims PUA: Initial claims Other programs (mostly STC and EB) Total
Cumulative 7,285,000
3,961,060 751,000  9,332,610
778,746 0


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