One year ago this week, when the first sky-high unemployment insurance (UI) claims data of the pandemic were released, I said “I have been a labor economist for a very long time and have never seen anything like this.” But in the weeks that followed, things got worse before they got better—and we are not out of the woods yet. Last week—the week ending March 20, 2021—another 926,000 people applied for UI. This included 684,000 people who applied for regular state UI and 242,000 who applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the federal program for workers who are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance, like gig workers.
Last week was the 53rd straight week total initial claims were greater than the second-worst week of the Great Recession. (If that comparison is restricted to regular state claims—because we didn’t have PUA in the Great Recession—initial claims are still greater than the 14th worst week of the Great Recession.)
Figure A shows continuing claims in all programs over time (the latest data for this are for March 6). Continuing claims are currently nearly 17 million above where they were a year ago, just before the virus hit.
The good news in all of this is Congress’s passage of the sweeping $1.9 trillion relief and recovery package. It is both providing crucial support to millions of working families and setting the stage for a robust recovery. One big concern, however, is that the bill’s UI provisions are set to expire the first week in September, when, even in the best–case scenario, they will still be needed. By then, Congress needs to have put in place long-run UI reforms that include automatic triggers based on economic conditions.