They came for him in the morning, before coffee break. — Stewart O’Nan, The Odds
This morning, the U.S. Department of Labor (pdf) reported that, during the week ending last Saturday, another 1.5 million American workers filed initial claims for unemployment compensation. That’s on top of the 44.2 million workers who were laid off during the preceding twelve weeks.
• week ending on 21 March—3.31 million
• week ending on 28 March—6.87 million
• week ending on 4 April—6.62 million
• week ending on 11 April—5.24 million
• week ending on 18 April—4.44 million
• week ending on 25 April—3.87 million
• week ending on 2 May—3.18 million
• week ending on 9 May—2.69 million
• week ending on 16 May—2.45 million
• week ending on 23 May—2.12 million
• week ending on 30 May—1.90 million
• week ending on 6 June—1.57 million
• week ending on 13 June—1.51 million
All told, 45.74 million American workers have filed initial unemployment claims during the past thirteen weeks.
To put that into some kind of perspective, I calculated the initial claims totals for two other relevant 13-week periods: the worst point of the Second Great Depression (encompassing the weeks ending on 11, 17, 24, and 31 January, 7, 14, 21, 28 February, 7, 14, 21, and 28 March, and 4 April 2009) and the weeks immediately preceding the current depression (so, 21 and 28 December, 4, 11, 18, and 25 January, 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29 February and 7 and 14 March 2020).
As readers can see in the chart above, the difference is stunning: 8.2 million workers filed initial claims during the worst 13-week period of 2009, 2.8 million from late December to mid-March of this year, and 45.7 million in the past thirteen weeks.
Once again, keep in mind, the most recent numbers still don’t include perhaps millions of other American workers, since many states are still addressing backlogs of claims. Masses of workers have been unsuccessful in applying for unemployment insurance because state websites and phone lines are inundated and still, even now, not working correctly.
According to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed workers fell by 2.1 million to 21.0 million in May, leading to an official unemployment rate of 13.3 percent—although, by correcting the misclassification of a large number of workers (who were classified as employed but absent from work), the official rate would have been about 3 percentage points higher. Moreover, the surveys on which those data are based only capture those who were unemployed in mid-May.
If we allow for the fact that at least some workers have been forced to have the freedom to return to work in recent months, then the total number of fully unemployed workers is something on the order of 32 million.* That would mean an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, which is just below the rate last seen in the first Great Depression (25 percent) and twice the highest rate (10 percent) suffered during the Second Great Depression.**
On top of that, we should add in the workers who are involuntarily working part-time jobs—in other words, workers who would like to have full-time jobs but have been forced “for economic reasons” to accept fewer hours. The reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers then rises to more than 42.6 million—or 27 percent of the U.S. labor force.
Moreover, as I argued recently, millions of unemployed workers are not included in this number:
In addition to first-time job-seekers who have unable to find a job (some unknown portion of an estimated 3.8 million high-school graduates, 1 million who graduated with associate’s degrees, and 2 million with bachelor’s degrees), it doesn’t include any of the estimated 8 million undocumented workers who have lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, employers and the White House (including Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia) are clamoring for businesses to be allowed the freedom to reopen. But they’re worried unemployed workers, who have received supplemental benefits as a result of the CARES act, will not want to return to work under with the risk of becoming infected with the virus. So, they’ve announced both that the extra $600 “disincentive” for people to return to work will be allowed to expire at the end of July and that any workers who refuse to be called back to work will lose their unemployment payments.
Their only plan, in the midst of the pandemic, is to turn the screws and force more and more American workers to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else.
*I used the following, perhaps overly generous, assumption: 3 in 10 workers who filed initial claims in the past thirteen weeks have gone back to work.
**At the highest of levels of unemployment following the 2007-08 crash, there were 15.3 million jobless Americans.