COVID-19

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-19

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
HTML EMBED:
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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

What does the unemployment picture look like?

It depends on where you live. The national unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 15% in April down to 8.4% percent last month. That number, however, masks some big differences in how states are recovering from the huge job losses resulting from the pandemic. Nevada, Hawaii, California and New York have unemployment rates ranging from 11% to more than 13%. Unemployment rates in Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont have now fallen below 5%.

Will it work to fine people who refuse to wear a mask?

Travelers in the New York City transit system are subject to $50 fines for not wearing masks. It’s one of many jurisdictions imposing financial penalties: It’s $220 in Singapore, $130 in the United Kingdom and a whopping $400 in Glendale, California. And losses loom larger than gains, behavioral scientists say. So that principle suggests that for policymakers trying to nudge people’s public behavior, it may be better to take away than to give.

How are restaurants recovering?

Nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed either permanently or for the long term — nearly 1 in 6, according to a new survey by the National Restaurant Association. Almost 4.5 million jobs still haven’t come back. Some restaurants have been able to get by on innovation, focusing on delivery, selling meal or cocktail kits, dining outside — though that option that will disappear in northern states as temperatures fall. But however you slice it, one analyst said, the United States will end the year with fewer restaurants than it began with. And it’s the larger chains that are more likely to survive.

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