Dec 18, 2020 - Economy

Unemployment surges as pandemic programs near expiration

Data: U.S. Department of Labor; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

A little more than a week before the programs expire on Dec. 26, claims for pandemic-specific unemployment benefits are spiking with nearly 1 million new people receiving unemployment assistance via the temporary programs, the latest data from the Labor Department show.

What's happening: As of Nov. 28, there were 14 million people receiving unemployment benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs, an increase of 958,000 from the previous week.

  • 1.4 million Americans filed unemployment claims for the first time last week, with 935,000 filing for traditional unemployment benefits and 455,000 filing claims for the PUA program.

What to watch: The White House and congressional leaders remain at odds on an approximately $900 billion coronavirus relief package that would extend the unemployment programs. It increasingly looks like the talks will drag into the weekend.

The big picture: Unlike in previous weeks when the number of people receiving traditional unemployment benefits was declining and the number of Americans on long-term unemployment programs like the PEUC was rising, the numbers rose across the board in the last week of November.

  • The number of people receiving traditional unemployment benefits rose by 552,000.
  • The number receiving PUA increased by 689,000.
  • PEUC rose by 269,000.
  • Extended Benefits rose by 79,000.
  • In all, the number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits increased by 1.6 million.
  • For the week of Nov. 28, 20.6 million Americans were receiving some kind of unemployment benefits

Make it plain: These numbers “really highlight the fragility of the labor market, particularly now as the second resurgence of the coronavirus [is] leading to further business closures and additional job losses,” Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel, told CNBC.

  • More than 247,000 new COVID-19 infections were confirmed in the U.S. and data from the Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project showed a record 113,000 people were hospitalized with the virus.

Pay attention: The Labor Department's seasonally adjusted figures showed 885,000 initial applications for unemployment benefits, 50,000 fewer claims than the unadjusted numbers.

  • The Labor Department has said it agrees with a report from the Government Accountability Office that found its weekly releases "do not provide an accurate estimate of the total number of individuals actually claiming unemployment insurance."
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