Unemployment: How Many Are Actually Out of Work, and Why the Numbers Change

More than 40 million first-time claims have been filed since March, but that doesn't equate exactly with how many people aren't working

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Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, of that there is no doubt. But when you try to pinpoint precisely how many tens of millions, that's where things can get a little bit complicated. Here's how to make sense of the latest eye-popping numbers.

Q: I see headlines saying more than 40 million people have lost their jobs in the last 10 weeks. Is that true?
A: Every week the U.S. Labor Department reports what are known as first-time jobless claims -- the number of people claiming unemployment benefits for the first time. In the last 10 weeks, if you add up each week's report, that number tops 40 million. But -- and it's a big caveat -- not all of those people will ultimately get benefits. Some aren't eligible but filed anyway, and some will be rejected for other reasons. Also, just because they filed in the last 10 weeks doesn't mean they're still unemployed. They might have filed, gotten benefits, and then gone back to work, or fallen off the rolls for another technical reason.

Q: But 40 million people were laid off, right?
A: Not necessarily. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the monthly unemployment report, said earlier this month that people who had a job but whose workplace was closed due to the virus should be classified as "unemployed on temporary layoff," even if they hadn't been laid off in the traditional sense. It's the odd case where you can be technically considered unemployed even if you haven't officially lost your job.

Q: So how many people are actually unemployed right now?
A: Unfortunately, it's not as simple a question as you might think. The Labor Department says "insured unemployment" in the week ending May 16 was 21.05 million people, a number referred to as continuing claims (because people had claimed, and then continued to claim, benefits). When they say "insured unemployment," that's the unemployment that most full-time workers in traditional jobs know about. But those numbers are volatile too, and can change from week to week depending on how states report their data and when. There are also differences in the numbers depending on whether or not you use seasonal adjustment, which smooths out the effects of holidays, harvests and other job-market changes linked to the time of year.

Q: What about "gig workers," like rideshare drivers and the self-employed?
A: Those folks are counted in a whole separate program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, which is a new, temporary program created by the CARES Act in late March for people not eligible for traditional unemployment compensation. The Labor Department says about 7.8 million people were claiming benefits under that program in total, as of the week that ended May 9.

Q: So ... what's the actual total?
A: Different people will look at different numbers and take different signals from them as to the health of the job market. Plus, while the latest initial claims number goes through the week ended May 23, the continuing claims number goes through May 16 and the PUA number goes through May 9. So, it's not necessarily apples-to-apples in all respects. That said, the Labor Department says of as May 9, the unadjusted number of people claiming any kind of out-of-work benefit nationwide was just shy of 31 million.

That 31 million number includes an unadjusted 22.7 million people on regular state unemployment, plus 7.8 million people on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and a few hundred thousand people getting benefits under other programs, including those for federal employees and newly discharged military veterans.

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