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Data: Department of Labor; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The U.S. unemployment picture looks to be improving but it's increasingly being clouded by shoddy data, a problem that seems to be getting worse as the pandemic progresses.

What's happening: The number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits rose to 29.2 million for the latest week of data, the Department of Labor announced Thursday.

  • But the increase of 2.2 million people to the rolls was largely the result of 2.3 million people being added to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in just the state of California.
  • California's total PUA additions for one week nearly doubled its total number of recipients and accounted for one out of six people receiving PUA benefits nationwide.

Reality check: "The unemployment data are just incredibly problematic," Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist to the U.S. Secretary of Labor who now serves as senior economist and director of policy at EPI, tells Axios.

  • "When I talk about how bad these data are — and they are very bad — it’s all symptomatic of ... the fact that we have disinvested in our unemployment agencies for four decades and now we are expecting them to deal with thousandfold increases in demand for their services."
  • "We set them up to fail by not investing in them in a way that means we don’t have an agile system that can quickly absorb and be flexible to deal with something like this."

Between the lines: Shierholz adds that many of the nation's unemployment systems are running on a 60-year-old computer program known as COBOL that in addition to crashing, often over- and undercounts recipients.

The big picture: While the technology is a problem and the labor market is slowly improving, "we are still in a historically bad situation," Shierholz says.

  • "It’s just at absolute crisis levels. We are slowly crawling out of a hole, but it’s a giant hole."

Go deeper

A new gig economy playbook

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A victory by gig-economy companies in California to keep classifying their workers as contractors has given the industry a playbook to face rising labor movements nationwide.

Why it matters: The efforts to force the companies to treat their workers like full-time employees could annihilate their business models.

Starbucks drops worker vaccine mandate after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks announced in a memo to employees Tuesday that it has dropped plans to implement a vaccine mandate for all U.S. workers, AP reported on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

2 hours ago - World

Netanyahu plea talks enter crunch time

Netanyahu (right) meets with his lawyer ahead of a court hearing last February. Photo: Reuven Casto/Pool/AFP via Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister, is negotiating a possible plea deal over the corruption charges against him, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appears to be toughening his terms.

Why it matters: Mandelblit leaves office on Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue beyond that point, but the next attorney general may be less interested in quickly reaching a deal.