A Visual Guide to Unemployment Benefit Claims
by Jared Walczak and Tom VanAntwerp, Tax Foundation, May 8, 2020
According to Thursday’s data release, another 2,849,090 people filed initial unemployment benefit claims during the week ending May 2, the fourth week of a decline in the rate of new claims, but still among the highest levels in U.S. history. (New claims peaked at 6,211,399 for the week ending April 4.) The total number of new and continued claims now stands at 24,884,843.
Prior to the current crisis, the highest one-week unemployment claims as a percentage of everyone in the unemployment insurance system (those currently in “covered” employment plus those claiming benefits) was 1.36 percent, in January 1975. During the Great Recession, the one-week peak was 0.68 percent in January 2009. The peak during the current crisis, reached the week ending April 4, was 3.89 percent.
Approximately 15.1 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force has now applied for or is receiving unemployment compensation benefits (through May 2, the latest data). The previous high was 7.9 percent early in 1975 during a recession, with a Great Recession peak of 4.8 percent between February and April 2009. Entering March 2020, unemployment claims as a percentage of the civilian labor force stood at 1.4 percent.
Unfortunately, many states entered the crisis with woefully inadequate unemployment compensation trust funds. Trust funds in California, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia are nearly or completely exhausted, with depletion imminent in Connecticut, Texas, Illinois, and Kentucky as well. According to our projections, a dozen states only have enough left in their funds to pay out a month’s worth of benefits based on those who have filed for or are receiving benefits to date; since payments lag claims, it may take an additional week or two for funds to be fully exhausted.
According to the Treasury Department, nine states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia—have already been approved for federal loans (called Title XII Advances) in anticipation of the exhaustion of their trust funds. States must repay these advances (with interest starting in 2021), and if they still have outstanding balances after two years, in-state businesses will face higher federal unemployment insurance taxes to compensate for the state being in arrears.
States are now beginning to process claims from self-employed filers (normally ineligible for unemployment compensation) under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. These claims are fully federally funded, and these should be accounted for separately by states, but it is not yet clear whether all states are being consistent in excluding them from their weekly unemployment compensation claims data submitted to the Department of Labor, or whether some are mixing them with regular claims which are funded by the states.
Mandatory business closures and shelter-in-place orders have radically accelerated job losses compared to the steadier pace of layoffs in prior recessions, meaning these claims likely represent a far greater share of the ultimate total than did any week’s claims during the Great Recession. But the numbers are still staggering, with every likelihood of sobering numbers in coming weeks as well.
Our interactive tool allows you to see how the most recent week’s initial unemployment compensation claims in each state compare to average and peak weekly claims during the Great Recession. Many states are woefully unprepared for the magnitude of the challenge ahead. Entering the crisis, 21 states’ unemployment compensation trust funds were below the minimum recommended solvency level to weather a recession. Six states had less than half the minimum recommended amount, representing 37 percent of the U.S. population.
Crucially, a solvency level of 1 indicates the ability to pay out claims for one year during a Great Recession-like event, and as of May 2, nearly 24.9 million people had filed for unemployment, 418 percent of the worst Great Recession level. A level of 1 now suggests the ability to pay out current claims for only a little under 11 weeks—and of course, states have already started paying out these new claims. Our map above draws from the most recent fund financial data and claims figures, taking into account payments already made, to project how many weeks each state’s fund has left.
As more firms lay off employees and unemployment increases, states’ unemployment insurance taxes will rise on businesses that can least afford to pay. As states receive federal assistance to aid with unemployment benefits, it may be appropriate to provide some measure of relief to businesses as well, particularly to the extent that their layoffs were precipitated by business closure orders.
Explore your state’s data on our interactive tool at >>> THIS LINK