COVID & Unemployment

30 million? 18 million? How many Americans are out of work right now?

Mitchell Hartman Aug 6, 2020
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A woman leaves the Department of Employment Services in Washington, D.C. Estimates of unemployment vary depending on the formula and data used. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
COVID & Unemployment

30 million? 18 million? How many Americans are out of work right now?

Mitchell Hartman Aug 6, 2020
Heard on:
A woman leaves the Department of Employment Services in Washington, D.C. Estimates of unemployment vary depending on the formula and data used. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
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The Labor Department will release its employment report for July on Friday. The June report showed that nearly 18 million Americans were out of work. 

We learned Thursday that just shy of 1.2 million people filed first-time claims for jobless benefits last week. 

They join the roughly 30 million Americans who are already claiming unemployment benefits. How many unemployed Americans are there right now? 

Let’s start with those unemployment claims.

Economists like this number because it’s up to date and reflects the actual number of claims states processed last week, said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM consulting.

“All of the people who were receiving some form of unemployment benefits — and that’s north of 31 million people,” he said.

That includes those on regular state jobless benefits, plus freelancers, gig workers and people unemployed because of COVID-19 who are getting federal pandemic benefits.

On the other hand, the Labor Department’s monthly jobs report for June pegged the number of unemployed Americans at just under 18 million. 

But that’s likely lowball right now, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. To be counted as “unemployed,” you have to be actively looking for work.

But in COVID times, “there are many people that are not actually looking because they’re taking the advice of health experts in this country,” Gould said. “Maybe they’re caring for children right now, whose schools are closed.”

Former Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Erica Groshen has her own formula for counting total unemployment right now.

“What I’ve been doing is adding up all the people whose jobs have been disrupted — the bulk of them are probably pandemic- or recession-related,” she said.

Including those waiting to be called back from furlough, and part-timers who want full-time work — she comes up with 25 million. 

Back in February, before the pandemic hit, 158 million Americans had jobs. So about one in six of them don’t, now. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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