Despite improvements, last week’s claims were about four times higher than before the pandemic.
To make matters worse, this figure does not include claims made under a variety of other government unemployment assistance programs, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to people who are generally not eligible, such as self-employed.
The number of PUA claims was 658,737 last week, down from the previous week. It was the first weekly decline since early August.
Combined with non-seasonally adjusted PUA claims and general benefit claims, first filings were made in the week ending September 12, down from the previous week to 1.4 million.
Confusion over data accuracy
However, it is unclear how many people are actually receiving unemployment benefits.
As the coronavirus cessation and the creation of a temporary pandemic unemployment assistance program sparked a flood of applicants, federal and state government agencies have struggled to provide reliable data. Many unemployed Americans took weeks to accept their claims, resulting in a large backlog that could distort the numbers.
What’s more, criminals quickly exploit chaos and make fraudulent claims making it more difficult to determine the actual number of people in the unemployment system.
Some experts say that fewer people benefit than the number listed in the report. They point to the PUA program as a source of the problem.
Part of the problem is that setting up a new system takes time and many qualified people may not have realized that they can apply in the first place. This has led some to inflate ongoing billing data by applying for benefits several weeks at a time.
“You’re not counting the real people, you’re counting the number of claims,” said Till von Wachter, director of the California Institute of Policy Studies, working with state unemployment agencies to analyze unemployment data during the epidemic. “And that’s not necessarily a claim for that particular state.”
The Institute for Policy, for example, had about 3.5 million Californians benefiting from mid-August, but the number of certified payments exceeded 6 million.
A recent report published by the research agency found that in the case of Golden State, those who participated in regular state unemployment programs were certified for an average of about two weeks for most of the year. (California residents submit their certificates every two weeks rather than weekly as in many other states.)
However, those who participated in the pandemic program have been certified for about four weeks since June, and that number has soared to more than eight weeks at the end of August.
The state recently revised the certification process for claimants in the pandemic program and stepped up efforts to combat fraud.
Correction: The previous version of the article incorrectly reported the number of unemployment claims last week. It was 860,000.