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
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

With a slow vaccine rollout so far, how has the government changed its approach?

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced changes to how the federal government is distributing vaccine doses. The CDC has expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older, along with people with conditions that might raise their risks of complications from COVID-19. The new approach also looks to reward those states that are the most efficient by giving them more doses, but critics say that won’t address underlying problems some states are having with vaccine rollout.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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