Dec 11, 2020 - Economy

Blind spots in weekly jobless claims data make the trend difficult to parse

Data: U.S. Department of Labor, FRED; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: U.S. Department of Labor, FRED; Chart: Axios Visuals

New applications for unemployment benefits last week hit a three-month high — the latest sign that the labor market recovery is stalling.

Yes, but: Besides confirming the likely direction the job market is moving in, it’s unclear if layoffs are better than the numbers suggest, or even worse.

Why it matters: Economists have said for months the timeliest government data about the labor market is shoddy at best.

What’s going on: The claims upswing “likely overstates the trend, in the pace of firings, due to the catching up of processing claims following the Thanksgiving holiday,” Joe Brusuelas, chief economist as RSM US, wrote in a note.

What we don't know: How recent reports of growing backlogs in places like California are swaying the weekly figures.

  • How many people are falling through the cracks as they exhaust unemployment benefits.
  • Continued claims in regular state programs have been falling as people shift into the program that offers an additional 13 weeks of benefits.
  • When those are exhausted, they can move to the Extended Benefits program — but that’s only offered in 33 states.

Plus: A new disclaimer appears for the first time in Thursday’s report that redefines how we've talked about the continued claims figure for months.

  • It’s meant to be interpreted as the number of weeks of benefits that have been claimed, not the number of people who are collecting unemployment through various programs — to account for instances of double counting.
  • What it means: As of Nov. 21, Americans have collected 19 million weeks worth of benefits across all programs — but that doesn’t necessarily mean 19 million people are collecting these benefits.
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