While the number of Americans without jobs keeps rising, more states are stepping in to provide expanded unemployment benefits.
About 4.4 million new workers applied for unemployment during the week ending April 18, bringing the total number of out-of-work Americans to 26.5 million over the past five weeks, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
"With the nation unable to mount the public health response needed to re-open businesses, unemployment benefits are carrying the weight and serving as the last line of defense for millions of struggling families," says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a leading unemployment expert.
But there is some good news. As of April 22, 44 states have started making $600 weekly payments from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program that was put in place as part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package Congress passed in late March, a Department of Labor spokesperson tells CNBC Make It.
Only Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin have not yet implemented the additional payments for those seeking unemployment benefits.
The $600-per-week compensation is scheduled to last until the end of July. This is on top of what out-of-work employees can claim under their state's unemployment benefits. But how much total unemployment compensation Americans receive varies dramatically by state. Last year, the Department of Labor reported the unemployment benefits replaced about 45% of a worker's pay nationally. In terms of dollars, the Brookings Institution estimates that the national average weekly payment was $387 prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Mississippi, for example, paid an average of $215 per week, while those in Massachusetts received $550 per week, on average.
States' processing of claims appears to be stabilizing as well, Stettner says. Several states saw their unemployment sites crash as a result of so many people logging on to apply, and many applicants reported long wait times for those calling. Yet while Stettner says there is little doubt workers would prefer a paycheck to an unemployment check, returning to work given the high risk of contracting a deadly virus is "no choice at all."
"Until worker safety procedures are stepped up, and there is widespread capacity to closely track and trace future infections, America will need to count on expanded unemployment insurance in ways it never has before," Stettner says.