Last week’s report on initial unemployment claims broke records in all the wrong ways, showing nearly 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits after losing their jobs, about five times the previous record. That record lasted for one week — this week’s initial claims report, released Thursday, came to 6.6 million. Today’s jobs report looks much less grim at first glance, showing March unemployment at 4.4 percent. But that number is stale and irrelevant, because each month’s unemployment rate is calculated based on a survey that asks about employment status in the week that contains the 12th day of the month. A lot has happened since March 12, little of it good.
We can estimate what the unemployment number would be if it had been measured at the end of March by deducting 10 million workers from the population that had been working as of March 12, and that would imply a true unemployment rate around 10 percent. But that likely understates the case, because the count of 10 million from the initial claims report doesn’t include people who couldn’t get through to slammed state unemployment offices to make claims; people who don’t realize they qualify for unemployment; or people who have lost jobs from March 29 onward. And it doesn’t include people who are about to lose their jobs. These numbers are already worse than they look, and they will continue to get worse before they get better.
“My working assumption is that we’re in for at least a few more weeks of multimillion claims,” says labor economist Martha Gimbel. She did point out one, modest offsetting factor when reading these grim reports: They are seasonally adjusted, which usually helps to strip out normal seasonal factors that push employment up and down, but when the number of initial unemployment claims is 30 times higher than normal, the seasonal adjustments can go a bit haywire, and so maybe the unadjusted numbers provide a better read on the true claims situation. Still, the numbers are enormous either way: Removing the seasonal adjustments only reduces the jobless claims from the last two weeks’ reports to about 9 million from 10 million. And Gimbel is worried about successive waves of job loss, as people whose jobs appeared insulated from the crisis lose work because people don’t have money to buy their services, even if those services are technically feasible to provide during a stay-at-home order.
All that said, help is on the way — a lot of it. People who have lost their jobs will get an additional $600 per week on top of the usual unemployment benefits, and benefits will be available to lots of people who wouldn’t normally qualify, such as people who were self-employed and people who had to quit their jobs because of the coronavirus crisis. State unemployment offices are working to get those benefits in place and when they are issued they will be available retroactively. The government is also taking unprecedented steps to encourage small- and medium-size firms to keep their employees on the payroll — offering them low-interest loans and then forgiving the balance of those loans to the extent they are spent on payroll and other necessary ongoing expenses like rent.
The former policy is designed to make unemployment less painful while the latter is designed to actually reduce the unemployment rate. But both of these approaches face logistical issues. Even before the new law passed, different states were handling the crush of unemployment claims with differing levels of deftness. For the week ending March 21, some states showed increases in new unemployment claims in the range of 3,000 percent, while others were closer to 200 percent. You shouldn’t assume this variation was mostly because the labor-market impact of the crisis has been geographically uneven. One of the states that had a relatively small increase was California, and since the state had extensive stay-at-home orders during that period, that’s a sign of slow claim processing, not an especially good employment situation. Emily Peck has a useful piece for HuffPost explaining how state unemployment offices are struggling to implement the congressionally approved expansion of unemployment benefits. In Washington State, for example, benefits will not be available until at least April 18, though they will be paid retroactively at that point in time.
Despite these strains on the unemployment benefits system, it is still one of the fastest and most robust tools we have for getting money to people who need it. Americans entitled to $1,200 one-time payments — that’s most adults in the country, even if they’re still working or weren’t even working when the crisis hit — will generally get them this month if the IRS or the Social Security Administration has their bank information, but otherwise they may be waiting for months. And those forgivable loans to small businesses, what’s being called the Paycheck Protection Program, have sparked a dispute between the federal government and the banks that are being relied on to process and issue them.
The Trump administration has been insisting it will be possible to apply for the loans as of today and in some cases it will be possible to get the loan proceeds the same day. But how many banks will be willing to process the loans and how quickly they will be able to do so remains an open question. So does the level of uptake among small business owners, who will have to put themselves in a position of borrowing money and getting comfortable with the idea that the loan really will be forgiven.
Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has advocated the forgivable-loan approach to retaining employees, says the program’s success will depend on the government quickly developing regulations that align with the law’s intent of making the loans very simple for businesses to apply for and very easy for banks to process.
“The statute requires very little documentation on the part of the borrowers to secure one of these loans,” said Strain. “They have to demonstrate that they were in business on February 15. They have to provide a payroll record so the size of the loan can be calculated, and they have to make a few good-faith certifications.” He added that banks are supposed to serve as mere conduits: The loans they make are guaranteed by the government and the banks are held harmless in the event a borrower misleads them into issuing a loan, so they should be effectively willing to shovel the money out the door with little paperwork.
If the government is successful in quickly standing up the small business loan program and getting businesses and banks to sign up for it, there will be another problem: The $350 billion that has been appropriated for it could be quickly exhausted. Of course, that will be a good sign that the logistical hurdles are being overcome and many workers are being helped by the program. In that case, it will be incumbent upon Congress to increase funding so loans can go to any eligible business that wants them, which it could do as part of a “Phase Four” coronavirus bill that is likely to be necessary in any case.
Nearly every aspect of the policy response to coronavirus-driven unemployment is necessarily kludgey, including the expanded benefits, the broadly distributed checks, and the Paycheck Protection Program. None will work perfectly right out of the gate, and all will leave out people who need help. But the necessary imperfection of the policy responses is a reason it is so important to come at the unemployment crisis from several directions at once, paying employers to keep people on payroll, paying employees who come off the payroll, and sending at least a little money to most everyone. Most people will benefit from at least one of those approaches, even if they do not all work in every situation. And that breadth of support will be a factor that holds down unemployment and keeps households more ready to spend and support the economy as we come out of the acute crisis. The numbers will still get worse, but these policies can put a lid on how much worse, and reduce the time it takes to get back to a strong employment situation after the acute coronavirus crisis passes.