(CN) — A whopping 29.7 million Americans received jobless benefits last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, giving numbers that, while dropping, are still some 20 times higher than last year’s figures.
Roughly 8.6% of the 136 million workers who meet age and work requirements to qualify for traditional benefits are receiving them. An additional 14.4 million gig workers and entrepreneurs received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance as of Aug. 29, and 1.5 million received Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.
With 20% of its workforce receiving benefits, Hawaii reported the highest insured unemployment rate in the country last week, followed by California, Nevada and New York.
Officially, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 8.4% of workers as unemployed in August. Counting potentially misclassified participants who were absent from work as well as those who stopped looking for jobs, at least 11.5% of Americans were out of a job in August.
While many consider official unemployment an undercount of the country’s job situation, others have taken issue with weekly reported insured unemployment.
In a Sept. 15 analysis parsing out daily unemployment insurance claims, the California Policy Lab found some applications processed in the last week of August were for jobless claims that dated as far back as April. Additionally, California has reported a surge 33% surge in claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance over the last few weeks, a trend researchers attribute to fraud rather than a rise in joblessness.
According to the Department of Labor, California reported the highest increase new claims for jobless benefits last week, with 230,225 claims for traditional unemployment insurance and 369,443 new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
California’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims made up more than half of the nation’s total claims last week.
“The large rise in the number of new UI claims and steep increases in continuing claims are likely affected by fraud, but by using new metrics that go beyond these numbers, we are able to shed light on the true state of California’s labor market,” Till von Wachter, a UCLA economics professor who co-authored of the analysis, said in a statement.
The analysis confirmed nearly 20% of the state’s workforce received jobless benefits in August and since March 39%, or 7.5 million people, have filed for benefits at some point.
“Our analysis paints a mixed picture of the recovery: new initial claims for regular UI (not counting PUA) fell below the Great Recession peak for several weeks in a row, a first in this crisis and a positive sign,” added von Wachter, who is also faculty director at the California Policy Lab.
Although it’s not possible to tell from the data when people claiming benefits were actually out of work, the Department of Labor reported receiving 1.4 million new jobless claims from states last week, including 790,021 claims for traditional unemployment and 658,737 new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims.
Nationally, the New York Times estimates, “the number of people receiving unemployment benefits of any kind right now is 20 million to 25 million, rather than the 30 million suggested by federal continuing-claims data.”
A Sept. 11 poll from data firm Morning Consult found about half of voters think the economy is recovering while about a third think it is getting worse. There are clear partisan divides on the issue: 3 out of 4 Republicans are optimistic about the economy, compared to 1 in 3 Democrats. Half of Democrats think things are getting worse compared to only 14% of Republicans.
While unemployment appears to slowly improve, the risks of catching Covid-19 remain.
With 197,000 dead, Covid-19 is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. On average, 37,000 people tested positive for the disease each day over the last week.
“Whether or not a case originates in the workplace, once a worker comes to work who is sick, the burden is on the workplace to ensure that it isn’t transmitted,” said Marissa Baker, an assistant professor the University of Washington’s school of Environment & Occupational Health Sciences.
Besides frequent testing, creating social distance and providing masks, Baker said employers must also encourage workers to take paid sick leave if they become ill.
“Given that layoffs are rampant, and a lot of companies see cuts coming down the pipe, you still have workers who are thinking, ‘if I call in sick I’m going to be the first to be laid off,’” Baker said. “It basically puts workers in this impossible position of going to work sick or staying home and feeling like they’re going to lose their job, and we know that health insurance is tied to jobs.”
The Economic Policy Institute estimates roughly 6.2 million out-of-work Americans lost employer sponsored health care with their job. About 85% of laid off workers were able to access health insurance through other options, with Medicaid enrolling about 4 million new insures, but millions have fallen through the cracks and remain uninsured.
Even while employed, many frontline workers are paying for it through health insurance hikes.
Since May, a JBS meat-processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, has lost seven workers to Covid-19. In August, workers were hit with a 30% hike in health insurance costs, about $800 per person annually.
“These companies put up billboards thanking them for being heroes because they’re on the front line, yet they take the took their hazard pay away from them,” said Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW Local 7 Union which represents 22,000 frontline workers in Colorado and Wyoming.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the Colorado plant $15,615 on Monday for failing to protect employees from exposure to the virus. But Cordova said the fine was hardly a slap on the wrist the billion dollar Brazilian-based company. Employees organized a protest in the empty parking lot of OCEA’s headquarters in Denver on Wednesday, while many government employees continue to work from home.
“A lot of these big corporations, they have demanded that we meet virtually on WebEx or Zoom, and while they’re sheltered in, these workers have to be on the front line every day without the protections or the compensation that they need,” Cordova added. “They’re humans, they’re not robots. They’re not sacrificial and they’re going to get sick.”