An additional 2.4 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week, according to federal figures released Thursday, bringing the nine-week tally to 38.6 million since the coronavirus crisis crippled the U.S. economy.
The weekly count of new claims in Pennsylvania and New Jersey fell for the seventh straight week but both were still well above pre-pandemic levels. In total, almost 1.85 million Pennsylvania workers have now submitted jobless claims as of May 16, or 28% of the workforce, according to federal data. And in New Jersey, nearly 1.1 million workers have sought unemployment benefits, or 24% of the workforce.
The number of new claims nationwide continued its steady decline since peaking at 6.9 million the week ending March 28, but was still at a high level, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. New claims were down 249,000 last week from the almost 2.7 million filed the week ending May 9.
“The continued massive number of new unemployment claims raises the possibility that new private and public sector cutbacks may be creating a major barrier to stopping the labor market bleeding," said Joel Naroff, president and founder of Naroff Economic Advisors in Bucks County.
As it happens, Naroff himself recently filed for unemployment.
The latest jobless claims come as states start to lift restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected over 1.5 million Americans and killed more than 93,000 so far. Because tens of millions of Americans out of work, state governments are under rising pressure to ease restrictions on businesses. And with the unemployment rate at its highest since the Great Depression, some Americans are struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, a new census survey showed.
Pennsylvania has put 37 of its 67 counties in the first, or “yellow,” phase of reduced restrictions, allowing retailers to operate at limited capacity and letting businesses call employees back to work if they can’t operate remotely. New Jersey is in its first stage of recovery, where retail stores with curbside delivery and nonessential construction can resume.
In the week ending May 16, 64,078 Pennsylvanians filed new unemployment benefit claims, while 41,323 workers filed for assistance in New Jersey. New Jersey saw one of the biggest drops in new claims, which were down 28,366 from the week before.
And Pennsylvania reported another decline in the number of continuing claims for unemployment benefits, down 33,509 to 1,015,955 for the week ending May 9. That could mean early claimants are now returning to work, especially in counties where businesses are reopening, said Susan Dickinson, director of the state’s Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy. New Jersey saw a steeper drop in ongoing claimants, shedding 113,470 in one week to 601,963.
Like other state agencies, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) has been overwhelmed with the unprecedented wave of jobless claims. On Monday, the department said it has made 15.7 million payments totaling $7.9 billion in benefits since March 15. It launched a Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program this week to provide an additional 13 weeks of benefits to people who exhaust their regular unemployment compensation.
On top of that, the department is combating fraud. In an interview Tuesday, Dickinson said state auditors are catching fraudulent claims. With so many more jobless claims due to the pandemic, there is simply going to be more fraud, she noted.
“It’s a widespread problem that, fortunately, we have a lot of good support when it comes to our association and other states, and it gives us different techniques and different things that we can look for,” she said.
The U.S. Secret Service warned this week that criminals are targeting state unemployment insurance program funds. Crooks use stolen identities to file fraudulent unemployment claims, then recruit unsuspecting people to launder the funds, a Secret Service spokesperson said. Washington state has been particularly hard hit by the scam, according to news reports.
The Secret Service spokesperson did not say whether scammers have targeted Pennsylvania or New Jersey. During a news conference Monday, L&I Secretary W. Gerard Oleksiak said his department is aware of the scam but have not had any issues with it.
Even as more states come out of lockdowns, Americans are worried about their jobs and health, especially in the absence of a vaccine to fight the virus.
Almost half (47%) of Americans interviewed by the U.S. Census Bureau either lost employment income or had an adult in their household who has earned less since March 13. The survey of more than 74,000 Americans between April 23 and May 5 found that 10% of adults didn’t get enough food sometimes or often, and almost 11% couldn’t pay rent or the mortgage. Nearly 30% of respondents said they felt anxious or nervous more than half the days last week or nearly every day.
Meanwhile, some in the Philadelphia region still have issues getting unemployment benefits.
Naroff, the Bucks County-based economist, said he filed for unemployment after his business dried up. On Monday, he received three calls from a blocked number and assumed they were spam calls. It turned out they were from the Pennsylvania unemployment office, which left a message asking for additional information on his claim. The message included a general contact number that Narroff said he tried 200 times before giving up.
“Most people tend not to answer something that’s a private call, blocked ID, no caller ID, something like that,” Naroff said. “You assume it’s a junk call, and you don’t tend to answer that.”
Dickinson, the state official, said that staffers "can’t just be calling people with their personal phone number. They’ll have people calling them forever and ever.”
In Haddonfield, Ryan Nagle filed a claim in late March after being laid off at an Old City restaurant, but he is still waiting for a PIN number and financial determination letter from the Pennsylvania unemployment office.
He’s requested new PIN numbers twice and said he hasn’t been able to get anywhere through emails and phone calls. In the meantime, Nagle, 38, has depleted his savings to survive, money that was meant for a wedding and a new apartment.
“I’m down to like 100 bucks,” Nagle said. “I’m exploring low-interest personal loans just to stay afloat at this point.”