More than three months in, job losses remain at historic levels: Over one in five workers are either on unemployment benefits or are waiting to get on
Last week, 2.2 million workers applied for unemployment benefits. This is the 14th week in a row that initial unemployment claims are more than twice the worst week of the Great Recession.
Of the 2.2 million who applied for unemployment benefits last week, 1.5 million applied for regular state unemployment insurance (UI) on a not-seasonally-adjusted basis, and 0.7 million applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is the federal program for workers who are out of work because of the virus but who are not eligible for regular UI (e.g., the self-employed). At this point, 46 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico are reporting PUA claims.
Overall, things are not really improving. Figure A shows continuing claims in all programs—these data allow us to see how recipiency levels have changed over time (the latest date continuing claims are available for all programs is June 6). After the peak on May 9, claims declined somewhat, but increased in the latest data—nearly back to the peak—and are more than 29 million above where they were a year ago (which was 1.5 million).
Continuing unemployment claims in all programs: January 4, 2020–June 6, 2020
|Regular state UI||PUA||Other programs (mostly PEUC and STC)|
The latest figure in “other programs” in Figure A is 1.2 million claims. Most of this (0.9 million) is Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). PEUC is the additional 13 weeks of benefits provided by the CARES Act for people who have exhausted regular state benefits. PEUC declined somewhat in the latest data, but we can expect the number of people on PEUC to grow dramatically as the crisis drags on and more and more of the nearly 18 million people currently on regular state benefits exhaust their regular benefits and move on to PEUC.
With minimum wages set to rise next week in Nevada, Oregon, Illinois, and the District of Columbia—as well as in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and 12 other smaller cities and counties—it’s not surprising that business groups that always oppose higher minimum wages are calling for states and cities to put scheduled increases on hold in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There is no question that the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for state and local economies, but the case for raising wages for low-wage workers hasn’t changed. If anything, current conditions make it even more important for governments to strengthen pay standards, especially those that help low-income households.
The number one problem for businesses right now isn’t excessive labor costs, it’s a lack of demand. The federal government’s failure to quickly implement large-scale testing, contact tracing, and containment programs in the early days of the coronavirus’s spread forced most state and local governments to effectively put their economies into hibernation—limiting business activity to slow the spread of the virus. As cities and states reopen their economies, the central challenge for businesses and economic policymakers will be restoring consumer demand and making regular economic activity safe in the face of continued legitimate concern over the virus.
From a general macroeconomic perspective, raising the minimum wage in a period of depressed consumer demand is smart policy. Minimum wage hikes put extra dollars in the pockets of people who are highly likely to spend every additional cent they receive, often just to make ends meet. Workers who benefit from an increased minimum wage disproportionately come from low-income households that spend a larger share of their income than business owners, corporate shareholders, and higher-income households, who are likely to save at least some portion of the dollars that finance a minimum wage hike. As a result, raising the minimum wage boosts overall consumer demand, with research showing that past raises have spurred greater household buying, notably on dining out and automobiles. (Such findings are a good reminder that relatively small increases in a worker’s paycheck might be all that is needed for them to qualify for an auto loan or a mortgage.)
Because a higher minimum wage lifts up lower-income households—although some middle-income households benefit, too—it is likely to have a stronger effect than many—possibly even most—other recession response measures state and local policymakers might consider. Tax breaks or deferrals, rent subsidies, expanded lending programs, and other business-oriented relief measures all can help firms weather a downturn, but they’re not going to drive additional spending in the same way that a minimum wage hike does.
Trump’s ban on temporary work visas is an attempt to scapegoat immigrants during an economic collapse: Real reform would improve wages and working conditions
President Trump has issued a new proclamation, “Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak,” that will halt the issuance of certain major categories of nonimmigrant (i.e., temporary) work visas until the end of 2020, and calls for a number of rule changes with respect to work visas and work authorization. (A presidential proclamation is essentially the same as an executive order.) This follows his April proclamation that would suspend a third of immigrant visas from being issued (immigrant visas are also known as “green cards,” which confer foreign residents with lawful permanent resident status that can eventually lead to citizenship). The language in the April proclamation, which was initially valid for 60 days, also directed federal agencies to examine nonimmigrant work visas; this new proclamation appears to be the result of that effort. Trump’s new proclamation extends the duration of the April proclamation banning certain green cards until the end of 2020.
Trump’s June 2020 proclamation will suspend the issuance of new temporary work visas to migrants and their family members if they are applying from abroad, between now and December 31, 2020, but does not appear to suspend the issuance of visa statuses for those applying from within the United States. The impacted visa classifications are the H-1B for occupations requiring a college degree, H-2B for low-wage jobs outside of agriculture, L-1 for intracompany transferees and personnel with specialized knowledge, and some of the major programs that authorize employment in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, specifically the J-1 Intern, Trainee, Teacher, Camp Counselor, Au Pair, and Summer Work Travel programs.
While most of these visa classifications are issued to applicants at consulates abroad and are therefore suspended, the H-1B is an exception. In 2019, 60% of new H-1Bs were issued to migrants who were already present in the United States, often on a student visa. Therefore, the H-1B program will be less impacted in terms of a reduction in visas. (It may even result in a higher share of foreign graduates of U.S. universities being granted H-1B status, since they’ll be applying from within the country.)
Workers are striking during the coronavirus: Labor law must be reformed to strengthen this fundamental right
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed much about work in the United States: There have been countless examples of workers speaking out against unsafe work conditions and demanding personal protective equipment (PPE) to try and stay healthy and safe on the job. We also have seen that essential workers are often not paid commensurate with the critical nature of their work. Few U.S. workers have access to paid sick time or paid leave of any kind. And, when workers have advocated for health and safety protections or wage increase, they have often been retaliated against, and even fired for doing so. As a result, many workers have decided to strike in an effort to have their voices heard.
Even before the pandemic, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed an upsurge in major strike activity in 2018 and 2019, marking a 35-year high for the number of workers involved in a major work stoppage over a two-year period. Further, 2019 recorded the greatest number of work stoppages involving 20,000 or more workers since at least 1993, when the BLS started providing data that made it possible to track work stoppages by size. In fact, after decades of decline, strike activity surged in 2018, with 485,200 workers involved in major work stoppages—a nearly twenty-fold increase from 25,300 workers in 2017. The surge in strike activity continued in 2019, with 425,500 workers involved in major work stoppages. On average in 2018 and in 2019, 455,400 workers were involved in major work stoppages—the largest two-year average in 35 years.
DACA survives at SCOTUS: For now, ‘Dreamers’ will continue to be protected from deportation, but a permanent solution is urgently needed
Almost eight years to the day after President Obama announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, better known as DACA, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has issued a decision in Department of Homeland Security et al. v. Regents of the University of California et al.—the litigation concerning whether the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA was carried out lawfully. In a stunning rebuke to the Trump administration’s ham-handed rescission of DACA, the highest court in the land—which has a majority of staunchly conservative justices—ruled 5–4 that the Trump administration failed to comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when ending DACA. In doing so, SCOTUS upheld the findings of three lower courts that also determined the APA had not been complied with and that had allowed DACA to remain in effect via a nationwide injunction while the legal challenges continued. As a result, DACA will continue to exist, for now.
The immediate practical impact of the SCOTUS ruling on DACA cannot be overstated: It means 650,000 undocumented U.S. residents who were brought to the United States as children won’t lose their current protection from deportation. They can continue to attend school and work lawfully, and they can keep contributing to their communities and local economies.
The DACA initiative didn’t provide a permanent legal status, only a temporary reprieve from deportation that can be renewed every two years, along with the ability to obtain a Social Security Number and an employment authorization document. Nevertheless, this stopgap measure that DACA represents, which keeps immigrants from being deported to a country they can barely remember, has resulted in significant economic and educational achievements for DACA recipients. Being able to work lawfully and without the specter of deportation looming over them means DACA recipients are able to have basic labor rights, which in turn have translated into wage gains. How big are the wage gains? According to a study and survey conducted by Professor Tom Wong and United We Dream, the National Immigration Law Center, and the Center for American Progress, the hourly wages earned by DACA recipients increased 86% since they received DACA, from $10.46 per hour to $19.45 per hour. The wage gains were even higher for DACA recipients who are 25 and older—128%—from $10.64 per hour to $23.70. Wage gains of this magnitude can literally be the difference between being in poverty and entering the middle class.
A quarter of a year in, job losses remain at historic levels: More than one in five workers are either on unemployment benefits or are waiting to get on
Last week, 2.2 million workers applied for unemployment benefits. This is the 13th week in a row—a full three months—that initial unemployment claims are more than twice the worst week of the Great Recession.
Of the 2.2 million who applied for unemployment benefits last week, 1.4 million applied for regular state unemployment insurance (UI) on a not-seasonally-adjusted basis, and 0.8 million applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is the federal program for workers who are out of work because of the virus but who are not eligible for regular UI (e.g., the self-employed). At this point, only 44 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico are reporting PUA claims.
How is it that we are still seeing large numbers of initial unemployment claims now, when the May jobs report shows we added jobs? The missing piece is hiring. If there are a large number of layoffs, there can still be job growth if there is also a lot of hiring (or rehiring). In today’s gradually reopening coronavirus economy, hires (or rehires) are now outpacing job losses, but we are still seeing a huge number of people losing jobs. This means labor market “churn” is vastly greater than in normal times.
Further, some recent unemployment claims may be from people who lost their job in March or April but didn’t apply right away (perhaps because they couldn’t get through the system).
Many commentators are still reporting the cumulative number of initial regular state UI claims over the last 13 weeks as a measure of how many people are out of work because of the virus. I believe we should abandon that approach because it ignores PUA but overstates things in other ways (for example, some who were laid off and applied for UI in March or April may now be going back to work). Instead, we can calculate the total number of workers who are either on unemployment benefits, or have applied and are waiting to see if they will get benefits, in the following way:
Updated state unemployment numbers: In 10 states, more than one in six workers are receiving or have filed for regular unemployment
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released the most recent unemployment insurance (UI) claims data yesterday, showing that another 1.5 million people filed for regular UI benefits last week (not seasonally adjusted) and 0.7 million for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the new program for workers who aren’t eligible for regular UI, such as gig workers. As we look at the aggregate measures of economic harm, it is important to remember that this recession is deepening racial inequalities. Black communities are suffering more from this pandemic—both physically and economically—as a result of, and in addition to, systemic racism and violence.
As of last week, more than one in five people in the workforce are either receiving or have recently applied for unemployment benefits—regular or PUA. These benefits are a critical lifeline that help workers make ends meet while practicing the necessary social distancing to stop the spread of coronavirus. In fact, the $600 increase in weekly UI benefits was perhaps the most effective measure in the CARES Act for insulating workers from economic harm and jump-starting an eventual economic rebound, and it should be extended past July.
Figure A and Table 1 show the total number of workers who either made it through at least the first round of regular state UI processing as of May 30 (these are known as “continued” claims) or filed initial regular UI claims during the weeks of May 30 or June 6. Figure A and Table 2 show the total number of workers who either made it through at least the first round of PUA processing by May 23 or filed initial PUA claims during the weeks of May 23, May 30, or June 6. We do not sum the two totals together because some states have misreported PUA claims in their initial claims data, leading to potential double counting.1
New and cumulative jobless claims by state: Unemployment insurance (UI) claims filed and numbers and shares of workers either receiving unemployment benefits or waiting for approval during the week ending June 6
|State||Initial regular UI claims filed in most recent week||Total currently receiving or applied for regular UI||Regular UI as a share of labor force||Total currently receiving or applied for PUA|
Three months in, the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic continues: More than one in five workers are either on unemployment benefits or are waiting to get on
Last week, 2.2 million workers applied for unemployment benefits. This is the twelfth week in a row that initial unemployment claims are have been more than twice the worst week of the Great Recession.
Of the 2.2 million who applied for unemployment benefits last week, 1.5 million applied for regular state unemployment insurance (UI), and 0.7 million applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is the federal program for workers who are out of work because of the virus but who are not eligible for regular UI (e.g., the self-employed). At this point, only 42 states and Puerto Rico are reporting PUA claims. This means PUA claims are still being undercounted.
How is it that we are seeing large numbers of initial unemployment claims now, when the jobs report from last Friday shows we added jobs in May? One key thing is the fact that the unemployment benefits numbers don’t account for changes in hiring. If there are a large number of layoffs, there can still be job growth if there is also a lot of hiring (or rehiring). Further, some unemployment claims since April may be from people who actually lost their job in March or April but didn’t apply right away (perhaps because they couldn’t get through the system).
Many commentators are still reporting the cumulative number of initial regular state UI claims over the last 12 weeks as a measure of how many people are out of work because of the virus. I believe we should abandon that approach because it ignores PUA—and is thus an understatement on that front—but overstates things in other ways (for example, some who were laid off and applied for UI in March or April may now be going back to work). Instead, we can calculate the total number of workers who are either on unemployment benefits, or have applied and are waiting to see if they will get benefits, in the following way:
Without federal aid to state and local governments, 5.3 million workers will likely lose their jobs by the end of 2021: See estimated job losses by state
Last week, EPI hosted a bipartisan panel of economists who called upon policymakers to pass significant federal aid for state and local governments in coming months. This panel’s judgement was unanimous that federal aid for subnational governments is crucial for helping the economy mount a rapid recovery from the current crisis. In this post, we highlight that:
- If policymakers do nothing at the federal level to address these shortfalls, the United States could end 2021 with 5.3 million fewer jobs, with losses in every state.
- Further, if Congress passes some level of aid that is insufficient—less than $1 trillion—they will needlessly guarantee a significant job gap by the end of 2021.
- If they pass $500 billion of aid over that time, the jobs gap will likely be roughly 2.6 million. If they pass $300 billion of aid, the jobs gap will likely be roughly 3.7 million.
- While empirical estimates of the shortfall should guide policymakers’ thinking, they can (and actually should) avoid putting a firm sticker price on state and local aid by tying this aid to economic conditions. If the economy recovers faster than the forecasts driving the $1 trillion estimated shortfall indicate will happen, then less aid would be needed. If instead recovery lagged, more would be needed.
- Finally, filling in the estimated shortfalls would merely return state and local governments to their pre-crisis fiscal status quo. But the unique features of the current economic shock will put greater demands on public services than existed before the crisis. To go beyond macroeconomic stabilization and promote the general welfare, even more federal aid to these governments is likely needed.
Because a weakening economy undercuts state and local tax revenues, and because states operate under balanced budget constraints, the coming months will see intense downward pressure on state and local spending. Reductions in this spending will in turn significantly slow recovery from the current economic crisis. This is not an abstract concern—the historically slow recovery in state and local spending following the Great Recession by itself delayed a recovery in unemployment to pre-crisis levels by four full years.
The U.S. economy remains in an enormous jobs deficit: The labor market was down 15.9 million jobs at the end of April (JOLTS data), and down 19.6 million at the middle of May (jobs data)
Quick reminders about the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS):
- JOLTS data provide information on all pieces that go into the net change in the number of jobs. These components include: hires, layoffs, voluntary quits, and other job separations (which includes retirements and worker deaths). Putting those components together reveals the overall (or net) change.
- JOLTS data provide information about the end of one month to the end of the next, whereas the monthly employment numbers provide information from the middle of one month to the middle of the next.
This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data for April, showing the second-highest number of job separations on record (March was the highest) and the lowest level of hires on record. One important thing to understand about JOLTS data is the timing. JOLTS data provide information from the end of one month to the end of the next, whereas the monthly employment numbers provide information from the middle of one month to the middle of the next. The JOLTS data showed that 6.4 million jobs were lost from the end of March to the end of April. The monthly employment numbers straddle these numbers, showing that 20.7 million jobs were lost from mid-March to mid-April, and 2.5 million jobs were gained from mid-April to mid-May. Together, the JOLTS data and the monthly employment numbers paint a picture of the peak of job loss in this recession being in late March or early April, and people beginning to go back to work by the beginning of May. But no matter how you measure it, the U.S. economy remains in an enormous jobs deficit—we were down a total of 15.9 million jobs at the end of April (according to the JOLTS data), and down a total of 19.6 million at the middle of May (according to the monthly employment data).
The Fed’s crisis response: Helping corporations, yes, but mostly at the expense of financial predators
A number of recent articles imply that Americans should be mad at the Federal Reserve for bailing out the rich in the coronavirus crisis. This seems wrong to me. We should be mad at nearly every other policymaker—mostly Congress and the president—for failing to do enough to bail out typical working families.
The Fed, conversely, has maximized the weak tools it has available right now for helping these families. Maybe we should give the Fed more and better tools for future recessions—but it’s not useful to get mad at the Fed for failing to do things it can’t do right now.
This is not to say the Fed is a force for good always and everywhere. There really are times when the Fed intervenes on the side of corporate interests in what is essentially a distributive conflict between labor and capital. (By “capital” I’m including the corporate managers who serve as corporate agents and whose rewards trade off pretty sharply against typical workers’ pay.) Usually the Fed’s intervention on behalf of capital occurs when it cuts economic expansions short by raising interest rates in the name of controlling inflation, robbing typical workers of the leverage to secure faster wage growth that really tight labor markets could give them. As we have often written, these actions by the Fed have been hugely consequential, contributing significantly to the disastrously slow wage growth for the bottom 80% of the U.S. workforce for most of the last 40 years.
However, lots of recent evidence suggests that the Fed—now recognizing how distributionally important these past episodes have been—is genuinely concerned about avoiding the kind of prematurely contractionary policies that curtail employment possibilities for traditionally disadvantaged groups and hamstring typical workers’ wage growth. This has been a huge progressive win.
Today’s Fed intervention is not part of a capital–labor conflict
By lending to and buying the debt of private businesses in response to the coronavirus crisis, the Fed is not wading into a capital–labor conflict on the wrong side. Instead, it is wading into a conflict between nonfinancial capital and financial predators.
Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement are linked to historical lynchings: U.S. counties where lynchings were more prevalent from 1877 to 1950 have more officer-involved killings
“A lynching is much more than just a murder. A murder may occur in private. A lynching is a public spectacle; it demands an audience… A lynching is a majority’s way of telling a minority population that the law cannot protect it.” — Aatish Taseer, British journalist
George Floyd’s death was more than just a murder, it was a modern-day lynching.
The agonizing similarity in the death of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, is that current and former police officers participated in their lynching. From 1877 to 1950, nearly 4,000 individuals were the victims of lynchings. Some have speculated that as many as 75% of historical lynchings “were perpetrated with the direct or indirect assistance of law enforcement personnel.” Despite drawing attention from large crowds, many perpetrators of historical lynchings were never charged with a crime—a fact seen in many modern-day officer-involved shootings.
While historical lynchings peaked more than a century ago, these racist acts can be linked to officer-involved shootings today.
Using county-level data on historical lynchings and present-day officer-involved shootings, Figure A shows that historical lynchings are positively associated with officer-involved shootings for Blacks. That is, counties that experienced a higher number of historical lynchings have larger shares of officer-involved shootings of Blacks in the last five years.
What to watch on jobs day: The unemployment rate continues to climb but not equally for all demographic groups
In April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 20.5 million jobs were lost and the unemployment rate rose faster than ever before, hitting 14.7%, the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. May’s unemployment rate is expected to be far higher. Initial unemployment insurance claims suggest an excess of 10 million more people lost their jobs between mid-April and mid-May, the reference period for tomorrow’s report.
In advance of tomorrow’s jobs data from BLS, let’s take a minute to look more closely at the unemployment rate across various demographic groups and consider the extent of economic pain missed in the official count of the unemployed. Because of the use of the microdata in our calculations, the numbers in the figure below are not seasonally adjusted and therefore do not match the topline seasonally adjusted data released by BLS. The microdata, however, allow us to measure the unemployment rate and calculate the adjusted unemployment rate across a variety of groups not reported by the BLS.
The official unemployment rate is in dark blue in Figure A below. As you can see, the unemployment rate is incredibly high across the board. Except for those with an advanced degree, the unemployment rate of all groups has exceeded the highest level the overall unemployment rate hit at the height of the Great Recession, when it reached 10.0% in 2009 (and all groups have exceeded their group’s highest unemployment of the Great Recession). Even though jobs were lost across the board, the data indicate that job losses were particularly stark for black and brown workers, those who are less likely to be able to economically weather the storm. Historically higher unemployment rates and lower liquid savings make job losses even more devastating for African American workers and their families.
Close to one in four workers are either on unemployment benefits or are waiting to receive them: Congress must take action
Over the last week, I have been consumed with pain and anger over the police murders of George Floyd and so many other Black people—murders rooted in a long history of white supremacy and lynchings in the United States. That long history of white supremacy has profound effects on the labor market. For example, recessions hit Black workers harder than white workers because of dynamics like occupational segregation, discrimination, and other labor market disparities rooted in systemic racism. In this post, I am going to talk about today’s release of unemployment insurance data. These data highlight the deep recession we are now in—a recession that will exacerbate existing racial inequalities by causing greater job loss and income declines in Black households than white households.
Last week, 2.2 million workers applied for unemployment benefits. This is the 11th week in a row that initial unemployment claims have been more than twice the worst week of the Great Recession.
Of the 2.2 million who applied for unemployment benefits last week, 1.6 million applied for regular state unemployment insurance (UI), and 0.6 million applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is the new federal program for workers who are out of work because of the virus but who are not eligible for regular UI (e.g., the self-employed). At this point, only 36 states and Puerto Rico are reporting PUA claims. This means PUA claims are still being undercounted.
It has been well documented that fiscal austerity was a catastrophe for the recovery from the Great Recession. New estimates show that without sufficient aid to state and local governments, the COVID-19 shock could lead to a revenue shortfall of nearly $1 trillion by 2021 for state and local governments. In lieu of substantial federal investments, budget cuts are certain. But I, for one, did not expect to see the losses as soon as April. As of the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), state and local government employment fell by 981,000, with the vast majority of losses found in local government. And the majority of those local government losses are in the education sector, with a loss of 468,800 jobs in local public school employment alone.
State and local government austerity in the aftermath of the great recession contributed to a significant shortfall in employment in public K–12 school systems, a shortfall that continued through 2019. The figure below shows that, as of early 2020, public employment in elementary and secondary schools had yet to recover the level it had reached prior to the losses of the Great Recession. Furthermore, employment levels in the public education system have failed to keep up with growth in public school enrollment since 2008. As of September 2019, the start of the most recent pre-pandemic school year, local public education jobs were still 60,000 short of their September 2008 level, and they were over 300,000 lower than they would have needed to be to keep up with public school enrollment.
Then, the pandemic hit and local education jobs dropped sharply. More K–12 public education jobs were lost in April than in all of the Great Recession. And that’s before any austerity measures from lost state and local revenue have been put in place. A look at the Current Population Survey reveals that losses in public education were concentrated in certain occupations. While some teachers were spared, namely elementary and middle school teachers, others were not. Half of the job losses in K–12 public education between March and April were among special education teachers, tutors, and teaching assistants. Not only are these job losses devastating to those no longer getting a paycheck, but they negatively impact the education students receive. Other significant job losses occurred among counselors, nurses, janitors, and other building maintenance workers. Without sufficient staffing, we cannot safely reopen schools and get parents back to work—which will in turn hamper economic recovery.
Six states have at least one million workers either receiving regular unemployment benefits or waiting for their claim to be approved
The Department of Labor (DOL) released the most recent unemployment insurance (UI) claims data yesterday, showing that another 1.9 million people filed for regular UI benefits last week (not seasonally adjusted) and 1.2 million for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the new program for workers who aren’t eligible for regular UI, such as gig workers.
In the last 10 weeks, more than one in five people in the workforce are either receiving or have recently applied for unemployment benefits—regular or PUA. These benefits are a critical lifeline that help workers make ends meet while slowing the spread of coronavirus as we practice social distancing. The $600 increase in weekly UI benefits was perhaps the most effective measure in the CARES Act for insulating workers from economic harm, and it should be extended past July.
For the last few weeks, we have been reporting the sum of initial claims since we first started seeing the economic effects of the pandemic. This week, we are reporting a different measure of the cumulative number of people claiming UI: the total number of workers who are either on unemployment benefits, or have applied and are still waiting to see if they will get benefits.
More than one in five workers are either receiving unemployment benefits or waiting for approval: Congress must do much, much more
Last week, 3.1 million workers applied for unemployment benefits. This is the tenth week in a row that initial unemployment claims are more than three times the worst week of the Great Recession.
Of the 3.1 million who applied for unemployment benefits last week, 1.9 million applied for regular state unemployment insurance (UI), and 1.2 million applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is the new federal program for workers who are out of work because of the virus but who are not eligible for regular UI (e.g. the self-employed). At this point, 15 states and the District of Columbia are not yet even reporting PUA data. This means PUA claims are still being undercounted.
34.2 million workers are either receiving unemployment benefits or waiting for approval: Reported number of initial and continued UI and PUA claims, as of May 23, 2020
|Regular state UI: Continued claims||Regular state UI: Initial claims||PUA: Continued claims||PUA: Initial claims||Total|
Many commentators are reporting the cumulative number of initial regular state UI claims over the last 10 weeks as a measure of how many people have applied for UI in this pandemic. At this point, I believe we should abandon that approach because it ignores PUA—and is thus an understatement on that front—but may overstate things in other ways. For example it may lead to some double-counting. Instead, we can calculate the total number of workers who are either on unemployment benefits, or have applied and are still waiting to see if they will get benefits, in the following way:
A total of 19.1 million workers had made it through at least the first round of regular state UI processing as of May 16 (these are known as “continued” claims), and 4.1 million had filed initial UI claims on top of that but had not yet made it through the first round of processing as of May 23. And, 7.8 million workers had made it through at least the first round of PUA processing by May 9, and 3.3 million had filed initial PUA claims on top of that but had not yet made it through the first round of processing as of May 23. Altogether, that’s 34.2 million workers who are either on unemployment benefits or who have applied very recently and are waiting for approval—roughly two-thirds UI, and one-third PUA. Together, that is more than one in five people in the U.S. workforce.
Criminalization of black and brown communities in the Midwest adds to public health crisis during COVID-19 pandemic
The first installment of this three-part series on the impact of the coronavirus in the Midwest describes how weak labor protections have put Midwestern food processing workers at risk for coronavirus. Here we describe how incarceration puts people in the Midwest at risk during the pandemic and what state and local policymakers can do to protect the health and safety of people and families impacted by incarceration.
During a public health crisis, we’re reminded that our communities are only really safe when everyone is safe. Across the nation—and throughout the Midwest—our communities include jails, prisons, and detention centers. And now, people who are incarcerated face an urgent problem: greater health risks from COVID-19. Overcrowding inhibits physical distancing and isolation of people who’ve contracted the virus, and inadequate medical care and supplies in these facilities prevents necessary testing, treatment, and sanitation. Decades of so-called “tough on crime” laws have overcrowded Midwestern jails and prisons and put the people who are incarcerated and the surrounding communities at risk.
State and local policymakers must do more to protect the health and safety of people impacted by incarceration and the workers coming in and out of these facilities as well. Proper medical care; prioritizing people for release from jails, prisons, and detention centers; eliminating unnecessary fees and fines; protecting people on parole and probation; and ensuring incarcerated people are able to communicate with their family and friends without creating additional economic hardship are all steps that should be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic and further highlight reforms necessary even when we are not facing a global health emergency.
What does incarceration in the Midwest look like?
All states throughout the Midwest have seen a dramatic increase in incarceration over the last 40 years. They have incarcerated people in jails, prisons, detention centers, and juvenile justice facilities at higher rates (652 people per every 100,000 people in the state on average across the Midwest) even when compared with wealthy democracies around the world. Racial disparities are especially stark for black people, who are overrepresented in jails and prisons in every Midwestern state. For example, of the 10 states with the highest black–white differential in incarceration in state prisons, five (Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska) are in the Midwest and three of these (Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota) imprison black people at more than 10 times the rate of white people. Latino and indigenous people are at least two times as likely to be incarcerated in many Midwestern states, including Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These communities are also more likely to have underlying health conditions that lead to higher rates of death after contracting the virus, a risk factor that reflects and compounds durable patterns of segregation and discrimination.
Without federal aid, many state and local governments could make the same budget cuts that hampered the last economic recovery
If policymakers should learn one lesson from the long, sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, it is that cutting public spending, particularly by state and local governments, is a recipe for prolonged economic pain. My colleague Josh Bivens has described in detail how the state and local austerity of the early 2010s was both an unprecedented cutback in public spending following a recession and directly to blame for the slow pace of recovery.
Unfortunately, facing massive projected losses in revenue as the coronavirus has forced them to lock down their economies, many state and local governments are already cutting critical services and laying off staff. The April jobs report showed that nearly 981,000 state and local public-sector jobs have already been lost. To put that in perspective, that’s more than all the state and local public-sector jobs lost in the Great Recession and its aftermath.
As shown in Figure A, the peak for state and local government employment occurred in July 2008. As state and local budgets deteriorated throughout that year, governments began cutting services and staff. When the recession officially ended in June 2009, lawmakers in many states were already cutting jobs, choosing to slash budgets rather than pursuing new revenues. These cuts accelerated in 2010 as relief funding from the federal recovery act dried up, and they continued for several years, particularly in many states where conservative lawmakers took control following the 2010 elections. The result was a loss of nearly 800,000 state and local public-sector jobs by July 2013.
April's state and local government job losses were larger than the entirety of cuts in the Great Recession: State and local government employment (in thousands), December 2007–April 2020
|State and local actual|
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced that they are working on legislation to give companies enhanced protections against lawsuits by employees and consumers who contract COVID-19 and claim that the business is responsible for their infection. Instead of advancing crucial worker protections and aid to state and local governments, Republicans and corporate advocacy organizations have made “liability shield” legislation the main priority for additional pandemic relief and recovery measures—claiming that it is necessary to remove liability from businesses in order to reopen the economy. To be clear, removing legal accountability from businesses would jeopardize the health and safety of workers and consumers and threaten the overall economic recovery.
In the last several months, there have been many examples of businesses failing to provide workers with the necessary personal protective equipment to enable them to perform their jobs safely and effectively. Further, some workplaces have continued to operate when workers reported infection and have become epicenters of a local outbreak. Eliminating all legal liability for businesses will likely lead to more businesses acting irresponsibly and placing potential profits ahead of worker and consumer safety.
Compounding this problem is the fact that policymakers have gutted federal budgets for worker protection enforcement over the last decade, as shown in Table 1.
The Department of Labor (DOL) released the most recent unemployment insurance (UI) claims data this morning, showing that another 2.2 million people filed for regular UI benefits last week (not seasonally adjusted) and 1.2 million for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the new program for workers who aren’t eligible for regular UI, such as gig workers.
While most states saw a decline in UI claims filed relative to the prior week, 12 states saw increases in UI claims. Washington saw the largest percent increase in claims (31.0%) compared with the prior week, followed by California (15.7%), New York (13.6%), and North Dakota (10.1%).
A note about the data: Unless otherwise noted, the numbers in this blog post are the ones reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, which they receive from the state agencies that administer UI. While DOL is asking states to report regular UI claims and PUA claims separately, many states are also including some or all PUA claimants in their reported regular UI claims. As state agencies work to get these new programs up and running, there will likely continue to be some misreporting. Since the number of UI claims is one of the most up-to-date measures of labor market weakness and access to benefits, we will still be analyzing it each week as reported by DOL, but we ask that you keep these caveats in mind when interpreting the data.
Figure A and Table 1 below compare regular UI claims filed last week with the prior week and the pre-virus period, in both level and percent terms. It also shows the cumulative number of unemployment claims since March 7 and that number as a share of each state’s labor force. In 10 states, more than a quarter of the workforce filed an initial claim during the past 10 weeks: Georgia (39.2%), Kentucky (38.0%), Hawaii (35.0%), Washington (30.9%), Louisiana (29.9%), Rhode Island (29.7%), Nevada (29.6%), Michigan (29.2%), Pennsylvania (28.4%), and Alaska (27.9%).
Last week, 3.3 million workers applied for unemployment benefits. That is an improvement over the 6 million per week we saw in late March/early April, but is an increase from the prior week—and is still well over three times the worst week of the Great Recession.
Of the 3.3 million who applied for unemployment benefits last week, 2.2 million applied for regular state unemployment insurance (UI), and 1.2 million applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). PUA is the new federal program for workers who are not eligible for regular UI (e.g., gig workers) but are still out of work as a result of the virus. At this point, 15 states and the District of Columbia are not yet reporting PUA data, so PUA claims are being undercounted. Note, the number of PUA claims for Massachusetts was misreported as 1,184,792. It should have been 115,952. I have corrected for that error throughout this blog post.
It is also worth noting that the Department of Labor (DOL) reports that 2.4 million workers applied for regular state unemployment insurance last week on a “seasonally adjusted” basis, compared with 2.2 million on an unadjusted basis. Seasonal adjustments are usually helpful—they are used to even out seasonal changes in claims that have nothing to do with the underlying strength or weakness of the labor market, typically providing a clearer picture of underlying trends. However, the way DOL does seasonal adjustments is distortionary at a time like this, so I focus on unadjusted numbers when looking at regular state UI. PUA claims are available only on an unadjusted basis.
The coronavirus recession is well upon us. In the U.S., layoffs related to the coronavirus began to intensify around the middle of March. By mid-April, the labor market had shed more than 20 million jobs, by far the most dramatic job loss on record—about two and a half times the job loss of the entire Great Recession. And the situation continues to deteriorate—an additional 12 million workers have applied for unemployment compensation since mid-April. There has never been anything like this.
The official unemployment rate was 14.7% in mid-April, up from 3.5% in February. And even though that is the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, it is not actually reflecting all coronavirus-related job losses. In fact, only about half of people who are out of work as a result of the virus are showing up as unemployed. About a quarter are being misclassified—they have been furloughed and should be counted as unemployed and on temporary layoff, but are instead being counted as “employed but not at work.” Another quarter are being counted as having dropped out of the labor force altogether, rather than unemployed. This is because jobless people who have not been furloughed are only counted as unemployed if they are actively seeking work, which is currently impossible for many. How is a jobless worker supposed to look for work in a lockdown or if he/she needs to care for a child whose school or day care has been shuttered?
If all workers who are out of work as a result of the virus had shown up as unemployed, the unemployment rate would have been 23.5% in mid-April instead of 14.7%. And the situation is going to get worse before it gets better—reasonable forecasts predict that the unemployment rate will average over 30% in May and June. Further, because our health system ties health insurance to work, people aren’t just losing their jobs. We estimate that 16.2 million workers have already lost the health insurance they get directly from their employer since the pandemic began—and these workers often cover family members through their employer-based plan, so the total number of people who have lost health insurance is likely almost twice as high.
Ending offshoring and bringing jobs back home will take more than tweets, press releases, and op-eds
Despite repeated warnings, America’s industrial base has been whittled away by corporations offshoring work to Mexico, China, and other countries. The offshoring of much-needed medical equipment in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic heightens the urgency to bring these supply chains home.
While U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s recent op-ed heralding an end to “the era of reflexive offshoring” highlights some positive steps forward by the USTR, much more needs to be done to bring supply chains home. It is not enough to—as the administration has done—set tariff policy by tweet, negotiate trade agreements that do not directly take on outsourcing across manufacturing and service sectors, and hope that corporations finally “see the light” and bring jobs home. Rather, returning jobs to America requires a robust, comprehensive strategy that coordinates policies in trade, currency valuation, investment, financing, energy, technology, tax, education, training, government procurement, and labor.
To start, this strategy would include the following:
- Insist that the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies cease their reflexive support for continued use of outside supply chains in Mexico and elsewhere and instead push for bringing work home.
- Ensure that “Made in the U.S.” in government procurement programs actually means that a product is manufactured by U.S. workers with U.S. supplies and materials.
- Require employment impact statements in government contract and award determinations in order to maximize U.S. job creation.
- Create a U.S. Manufacturing Investment Bank.
- Address currency misalignment.
- Eliminate tax incentives that encourage corporations to outsource production.
Who are essential workers?: A comprehensive look at their wages, demographics, and unionization rates
While the coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of the U.S. economy, with over 33 million workers applying for unemployment insurance since March 15, millions of workers are still on the job providing essential services. Nearly every state governor has issued executive orders that outline industries deemed “essential” during the pandemic, which typically include health care, food service, and public transportation, among others. However, despite being categorized as essential, many workers in these industries are not receiving the most basic health and safety measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Essential workers are dying as a result. While the Trump administration has failed to provide essential workers basic protections, working people are taking action. Some are walking off the job in protest over unsafe conditions and demanding personal protective equipment (PPE), and unions are fighting to ensure workers are receiving adequate workplace protections.
What is essential work?
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed much about the nature of work in the U.S. As state executive orders defined “essential services,” attention was focused on the workers performing those services and the conditions under which they work. Using executive orders from California and Maryland as models, we identify below 12 “essential” industries that employ more than 55 million workers, and we detail the demographics, median wages, and union coverage rates for these workers. In doing this, we build on the excellent work by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in their report A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries. Key differences are that we use a different data set—the Current Population Survey (CPS) instead of the American Community Survey (ACS), so we could get union breakdowns—and we expand the definition of essential to include occupations found in California and Maryland’s executive orders.
As shown in Table 1, a majority of essential workers by these definitions are employed in health care (30%), food and agriculture (20%), and the industrial, commercial, residential facilities and services industry (12%).
Essential workers by industry, 2019
|Total||Percent of industry|
|All essential workers||55,217,845||100%|
|Food and agriculture||11,398,233||20.6%|
|Transportation, warehouse, and delivery||3,972,089||7.2%|
|Industrial, commercial, residential facilities and services||6,806,407||12.3%|
|Government and community-based services||4,590,070||8.3%|
|Communications and IT||3,189,140||5.8%|
|Water and wastewater management||107,846||0.2%|
Congress is currently debating a new relief and recover package—the HEROES Act—that would deliver significant amounts of fiscal aid to state and local governments—more than $1 trillion over the next two years, all told. This is a very welcome proposal. The incredibly steep recession we’re currently in is guaranteed to torpedo state and local governments’ ability to collect revenues. Further, nearly all of these governments are tightly constrained—both by law as well as by genuine economic constraints—from taking on large amounts of debt to maintain spending in the face of this downward shock to their revenues. The result will be intense pressure for large cutbacks in public spending by state and local governments in coming years. Such cutbacks would be absolutely devastating to the cause of restarting the economy and allowing people to find jobs, even if the virus has completely abated.
We know how devastating these cutbacks would be because we have lived through the mistake of allowing them to drag on growth in the quite recent past. State and local governments became relentless anti-stimulus machines during most of the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008–2009. This post highlights a couple of findings from that period that should inform policymakers’ decisions this time around.
- Growth in state and local spending was far slower during the recovery following the Great Recession than in any other post–World War II business cycle on record.
- This state and local spending austerity dragged heavily on growth during that time. If this spending had instead followed the trajectory it established following the recovery from the similarly steep recession of the early 1980s, pre-recession unemployment rates could have been achieved by early 2013 rather than 2017. In short, this austerity delayed recovery by over four years.
- Recent justifications for denying aid to state and local governments sometimes rest on claims that this spending has been profligate in recent years. This is absolutely not so—growth in state and local spending has been historically slow for nearly two decades. Given the importance of what this spending focuses on (education, health care, public order), this decades-long disinvestment should be reversed, not accelerated due to an unforeseen economic crisis.
- If federal aid is passed that is sufficient to close the enormous revenue shortfalls the economic crisis will cause for state and local governments, it will create or save roughly 5–6 million jobs by the end of 2021. Without this aid, we will remain at least that far away from a full economic recovery by then.