Jobs are coming back. Businesses are reopening. But a year after the pandemic jolted the economy, applications for unemployment benefits remain stubbornly, shockingly high — higher on a weekly basis than at any point in any previous recession, by some measures.
And headway has stalled: Initial weekly claims under regular and emergency programs, combined, have been stuck at just above one million since last fall, and last week was no exception, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
“It goes up a little bit, it goes down, but really we haven’t seen much progress,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for the career site Indeed. “A year into this, I’m starting to wonder, what is it going to take to fix the magnitude problem? How is this going to actually end?”
The continued high rate of unemployment applications has been something of a mystery for many economists. With the pandemic still suppressing activity in many sectors, it makes sense that joblessness would remain high. But businesses are reopening in much of the country, and trends on employment and spending are generally improving. So shouldn’t unemployment filings be falling?
report released Thursday by the California Policy Lab, a research organization affiliated with the University of California, nearly 80 percent of the unemployment applications filed in the state last month were from people who had been laid off earlier in the pandemic, gotten back to work, and then been laid off again.
Such repeat claims were particularly common in the information sector — which in California includes many film and television employees who have been sidelined by the pandemic — and in the hard-hit hotel and restaurant industries, as well as in construction.
The Policy Lab researchers had access to detailed information from the state that allowed them to track individual workers through the system, something not possible with federal data.
California’s economy differs from that of the rest of the country in myriad ways, and the pandemic has played out differently there than in many other places. But if the same patterns hold elsewhere, it suggests that the ups and downs of the pandemic — lockdowns and reopenings, restrictions that tighten and ease as virus cases rise and fall — have left many workers stuck in a sort of limbo.
A restaurant may recall some workers when indoor dining is allowed, only to lay them off again a few weeks later when restrictions are reimposed. A worker may find a temporary job at a warehouse, or pick up a few hours of work on a delivery app, but be unable to find a more stable job.
disproportionately includes Black workers. The record-keeping for that program has been plagued by overcounting and fraudulent claims. But even a look at the state’s regular unemployment insurance program, which hasn’t faced the same issues, reveals remarkable numbers: Close to three in 10 California workers have claimed benefits during the crisis, and more than four in 10 Black workers.