One year ago, new claims for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits jumped to a staggering 3 million for the week, shattering the previous record by a multiple of three and foreshadowing the start of an economic and public health crisis that has forever changed the course of American history. This week also marks the fifty-second consecutive week that the U.S. Department of Labor has reported more than 1 million Americans have filed a new application for unemployment benefits.
One of the most enduring legacies of the COVID-19 crisis will be the sudden and unprecedented surge of layoffs after the national shutdown last March that led to these unemployment claims—and the elevated levels of need that remain a year later. Indeed, the extreme levels of unemployment at the one-year mark is one of the main reasons Congress moved quickly and decisively to deliver another $1.9 trillion in aid through the American Rescue Plan Act—of which nearly $300 billion will go to the unemployed. This fact sheet looks at the key unemployment insurance statistics that defined a grim year.
Initial UI Applications Shatter All Records
Record initial unemployment claims were the first indicator of how COVID-19 would damage the U.S. labor market, and claim levels are not even close to returning to pre-pandemic levels.
- Pandemic UI data: The severity of the COVID-19 crisis was revealed on March 21, 2020, when a then-record 2.9 million people filed initial claims for unemployment. That record would be followed by two consecutive weeks of more than 6 million claims. Since March 21, there have been a total of 104.4 million initial claims for either state or PUA benefits.
- Comparison to previous data: In January 2009, during perhaps the worst week of the Great Recession, the number of workers filing initial unemployment insurance claims jumped to 957,000. The previous high point for initial claims, set in January 1982 at 1.07 million in one week, has now been beaten for fifty-two straight weeks as a result of the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked on labor markets. Just before the pandemic, there were only 200,000 workers per week filing unemployment benefits.
Tens of Millions of Americans Made It Through the Process
Although, at the start of the pandemic shutdown, phone lines were jammed and websites initially crashed, tens of millions of workers were eventually processed and moved into state benefits or the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for self-employed individuals and others not eligible for traditional UI, under the CARES Act passed at the end of March 2020.
- Pandemic UI data: Continued UI claims reached over 30 million last summer, and remain at nearly 20 million one year into the pandemic. Total continued claims peaked at a record 32.5 million in late June 2020, before dropping back to 20 million (see Figure 1). The simple fact is that the shutdown led to tens of millions of jobs being immediately terminated, and many of them haven’t come back. Ongoing claims did decline sharply from early June through November 2020, as restrictions became lighter and many workers who were temporarily laid off went back to work, but the second pandemic surge halted this positive trend, and ongoing claims remain at nearly 20 million.
- Comparison to previous data: At the end of January 2020, only 2.12 million workers were receiving unemployment benefits. During the peak of the Great Recession, in January 2010, 11.65 million workers were receiving unemployment benefits (6 million on state benefits and 5.65 million on federal programs).
Unprecedented Levels of Support Went to Workers
Since March 2020, $637 billion has been paid out to jobless workers, supporting them and their families. Unemployment insurance, for many, has been the one thing keeping food on the table and the lights and heat on. While state UI benefits in most states replace only 30–40 percent of workers’ pre-layoff wages, Congress stepped in as the pandemic first raged to provide an additional $600 per week to jobless workers. This federal program lapsed in late July 2020, but was reinstated by the December stimulus package, though at only $300 per week. The American Rescue Plan Act will keep this supplement in place through September 6, reducing food and housing insecurity among unemployed workers and their families.
Over the course of the pandemic, a startling one in four American workers has received at least one unemployment payment. Powered by expansions in the CARES Act and the December stimulus, federal and state unemployment benefits have had an unprecedented reach.
- Pandemic UI data: As many as 46.2 million individuals have received at least one week of unemployment (first payments) during the pandemic. This includes 30.6 million who received at least one week of state benefits, and another 15.5 million who received at least one week of PUA. That’s the equivalent of more than one out of every four American workers having to rely on unemployment. Figure 2 shows the state-by-state totals, with more than 7 million first payments in California and 4 million in New York.
- Comparison to previous data: To put this in comparison, only 5 million Americans started a UI claim and received a payment in the twelve months prior to the pandemic. Even during the painful financial crisis of the Great Recession, 14.5 million workers received any UI benefits during 2009, which is less than a third of the pandemic high-water mark.
Over One Billion Weekly UI Payments Have Been Made
Unemployment benefits have complemented other one-time relief efforts by providing week-after-week support to Americans impacted by the pandemic. The sheer number of payments made during the pandemic underscores the height of the challenge, and the success of the response.
- Pandemic UI data: Between March 2020 and January 2021, there have been a combined 950 million weekly unemployment payments executed (not just claimed or processed, but actually paid), and the figure will easily exceed 1 billion once February data is reported. This includes 464 million weekly state benefit payments, 360 million weekly PUA benefit payments, 105 million weekly Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) benefit payments, and 20 million weekly state Extended Benefit (EB) payments.
- Comparison to previous data: Payments during the first year of the pandemic are more than ten times the 75 million payments that were made during 2019. Furthermore, there have been more than twice as many UI payments made in the pandemic’s first year than in the worst year of the Great Recession, which saw 400 million payments made in 2009. As displayed in Figure 3, the big difference from 2009 is the existence of the PUA program to fill in the gaps in traditional unemployment benefits.
Persistent Inequities Riddle UI Programs
While UI benefits rose rapidly during the pandemic they did not reach all those who needed them. Inequities persist along lines of race and gender nationwide:
Due to the fractured federal–state hybrid nature of UI, where fifty-three separate systems determine eligibility and benefits, geographic inequity is rampant in unemployment insurance:
- The average weekly benefit for Mississippi, the state with the second-highest share of Black workers, is just $188, which is only 58 percent of the national average and the second-lowest in the country. (See Figure 4.)
- Conversely, states with high benefits and long durations, such as Massachusetts, have low shares of workers of color.
- Latinx workers make up more than a quarter of workers in Florida and Arizona, yet Florida has one of the lowest maximum weeks of UI available (just twelve), and Arizona has the highest monetary eligibility conditions (excluding many low-wage and part-time workers).
UI System Still Plagued by Delays
One year into the pandemic, states still can’t process claims as fast as they did in 2019, or during the Great Recession. Despite tremendous success in delivering aid, major delays in processing have been the achilles heel of the UI program. These delays have not only frustrated claimants, but also they have put the unemployed at risk of hunger and homelessness while they wait.
- Pandemic UI data: U.S. Department of Labor regulations require that states pay out 87 percent of eligible individuals within fourteen to twenty-one days of their application. On this measure, only 11 states meet the minimum federal guidelines as of January 2021 (latest data). Another big emerging issue is the wait for individuals who choose to appeal an initial denial of benefits. Department of Labor standards direct states to have an average appeal processing time of 30 days, but as of December 2020, the average appeal had been pending for 96 days, three times the standard.
- Comparison to previous data: Before the pandemic, 48 of 51 states met the first payment timeliness requirement (January 2020). Similarly, the average appeal was processed within 24.9 days in 2019, within federal standards. The pandemic has had a bigger impact on timeliness than the Great Recession. In January 2010, 38 states were still able to meet federal timeliness requirements, despite months of extreme levels of claims. While appeals lagged during the Great Recession as well, it was not as bad—an average of 56 days in December 2009, compared to 96 days now.
UI Lessons Learned during the Pandemic’s First Year
The pandemic’s first year has strained the UI system like no previous moment in the nation’s history, and there are many lessons learned from the first year of pandemic UI claims. Here are four that stand out:
- The ad-hoc nature of the federal response puts workers and the national economy in danger: As The Century Foundation has written about extensively recently, the anxiety and economic damage Congress induces as a result of arbitrary end dates for benefit extensions and expansions is detrimental to workers and the macroeconomic recovery. These end dates are not supported by empirical research or labor market conditions, are chosen to score political gains or to assuage cost concerns. The real cost, however, is the financial security of millions of workers and a slower economic recovery. Policymakers should tie benefit extensions to labor market conditions and implement stabilizers to avoid unnecessary cliffs.
- Eligibility for traditional UI is too narrow: As shown above, the PUA program is the driving reason that unemployment benefits have delivered such wide assistance. The PUA program covers those not eligible for traditional UI benefits, including those who are self-employed, youth and others with short work histories, and those who can’t work because of conflicts between caregiving work. UI advocates and analysts have been pointing out the mismatch between outdated UI program rules and the changing nature of the workforce for much of the past two decades. The success of PUA has demonstrated that piecemeal changes to the traditional UI program can only go so far, and a wider safety net is needed.
- UI needs to be modernized to pay benefits quickly and prevent fraud: Years of neglect left the UI system without the technology and human infrastructure in place to respond optimally to the challenge posed by the pandemic. State unemployment insurance technologies were either running on antiquated or on new systems that were not designed with needs of jobless users in mind. Technological weaknesses also left the program vulnerable to criminals trafficking in the rich black market for stolen identity. The right investments in technology will both speed the process of gaining benefits and ensure benefits go to the people that deserve them.
- Benefit levels for traditional UI are too low and too short: State UI benefit levels, which often replace only 40 percent of a worker’s pre-layoff wages (and fail to take into account benefits, such as health insurance premiums or retirement contributions) are insufficient to meet a typical household’s needs. Current benefit levels can’t support even modest expenses for a one-adult, one-child family in a single city in America. The inadequate level of UI benefits has harmful effects on workers, who struggle to pay for basic necessities such as housing, food, and medications during periods of unemployment, as well as on the macroeconomic recovery, since it dampens consumer spending. The federal supplement ($600 under the CARES Act, and now $300) has prevented millions from falling into poverty and stabilized consumer spending and other macroeconomic indicators; and mounting evidence suggests that it hasn’t prevented workers from going back to work. Furthermore, 42 percent of workers have been out of work for more than twenty-six weeks during the pandemic—a critical threshold after which workers face long-term negative effects on health, income, and employment. Most states offer twenty weeks of UI benefits, but federal extension programs, such as the Extended Benefits program, fail to turn on quickly and stay on through the duration of a labor market recovery. Comprehensive UI reform should increase the generosity of benefit levels and durations, especially during times of labor market distress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an unemployment crisis that has shattered all previous records. The unemployment insurance program has faced unprecedented challenges meeting its responsibilities during the pandemic’s first year—and yet, powered by expansions started in the CARES Act and continued through the American Rescue Plan Act, the safety net has delivered a unique and powerful dose of aid to needy families and the nation’s economy.