‘Still Catching Up’: Jobless Numbers May Not Tell Full Story

‘Still Catching Up’: Jobless Numbers May Not Tell Full Story

More than 40 million people — the equivalent of one out of every four American workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic grabbed hold in mid-March, the government reported on Thursday, an astounding tally that rivals the bleakest years of the Great Depression.

The latest batch of claims — the 2.1 million people who filed a new jobless claim last week — may not be only a result of fresh layoffs, but also evidence that states are working their way through some of the choking backlog.

“We’re still catching up,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said of the newest claims. “The lags have been long.”

The Labor Department report marks the eighth week in a row that new jobless claims dipped from the peak of almost 6.9 million — but the level is still far above any other historical highs.

6

million

40.8 million

5

Claims were filed in

the last 10 weeks

4

Initial jobless claims, per week

Seasonally adjusted

3

2

RECESSION

1

’06

’08

’09

’12

’16

’20

6

million

40.8 million

5

Claims were filed in

the last 10 weeks

4

3

RECESSION

2

Initial jobless claims, per week

Seasonally adjusted

1

’06

’08

’09

’12

’16

’20

Source: Department of Labor

By The New York Times

At the same time, overcounting in some places and undercounting in others makes it difficult to precisely measure the number of layoffs caused by the pandemic — and in devising a policy response.

Under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Congress approved an expanded palette of jobless benefits two months ago that included freelancers, self-employed and gig workers and others who would not normally qualify under state rules.

“When we think about what to do when benefits expire, it would be helpful to know how many people are actually getting them,” said Elizabeth Pancotti, a research assistant at the National Bureau of Economic Research. While the Labor Department reports may be the best source of information, she said, they offer an “incomplete picture.”

In Thursday’s release, the department offered two tallies — one for those who applied for state benefits and another for those applying under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Many states, flooded with applicants, were slow to put the pandemic program into effect. Initially, many were mistakenly told they were ineligible. Others were instructed to apply for state benefits first and be rejected before applying for the federal benefits.

Shelter-in-place orders and business restrictions have been lifting across the country, and some workers have been called back to work.

But the reopenings remain bumpy and incomplete, and flare-ups of the coronavirus continue to disrupt business. On Tuesday, Ford Motor temporarily halted production at the Kansas City assembly plant in Missouri to deep clean after an employee tested positive for the virus. Two other Ford plants — in Chicago and Dearborn, Mich. — were also temporarily closed.

Allison Hester returned to her job in content marketing at a window cleaning supply company, but she said things were not the same as before. “It feels good, but I don’t feel secure anymore,” said Ms. Hester, who is 50 and lives in Little Rock, Ark., and was laid off in March. “I don’t take anything for granted.”

She applied for unemployment but was never able to get through. “I tried on and off for a month, but our system was so overwhelmed,” she said.

Monitoring withdrawals from the Treasury Department, Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist at Evercore ISI in Washington, estimated that by early May, roughly three-quarters of those eligible for benefits had started to receive them.

He and several other economists suspect that the confused application process has caused potentially millions of laid-off workers to be counted twice. States are also weeding out duplicate applications from frustrated filers who had trouble getting through or did not receive any response after weeks of waiting.

Then there are the mistakes. A data entry slip-up caused Massachusetts to pump up the number of federal claims by nearly a million last week. The previous week, a similar flub in Connecticut mistakenly inflated its total by a quarter of a million.

“It’s unclear if states are including duplicate claims due to error, fraud or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program,” Mr. Tedeschi said.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.