Millions can't access unemployment benefits so actual job losses are likely greater than data shows

Key Points
  • More than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance benefits since mid-March.
  • Millions more Americans have tried and failed to file for jobless benefits, according to a survey released Tuesday.
  • State unemployment offices are overwhelmed by the surge in claims from newly-laid off workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
New York state Department of Labor office in Brooklyn, New York on April 14, 2020.
John Nacion | NurPhoto | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic could be even bleaker than official government data suggests.

For every 10 people who successfully filed for unemployment insurance benefits over four weeks in March and April, an additional three to four people tried and failed to make claims, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Economic Policy Institute.

"These findings imply the official count of unemployment insurance claims likely drastically understates the extent of employment reductions and the need for economic relief during the coronavirus crisis," the study's authors, Ben Zipperer and Elise Gould, wrote.

An unprecedented 26.4 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance benefits since mid-March, according to the Labor Department. Unemployment has risen at a record pace as businesses across the country have shut down to comply with stay-at-home orders.

State unemployment offices are overwhelmed by the surge in claims from newly laid-off workers. Residents in states like Florida have complained that they have been unable to reach their local offices to file for benefits. 

The EPI survey estimated between 8.9 million and 13.9 million more Americans would have filed for claims over the past five weeks had the process been easier. 

"These findings on the millions of frustrated filers and the UI (unemployment insurance) system's low payment rate highlight the need for policies to improve rather than hinder the UI application process," the authors said.

The process for filing for unemployment benefits varies widely across the country. Some states rely almost exclusively on telephone and in-person filings, while others use forms online.

"How difficult it is to get unemployment benefits matters for how many claims get approved and how big the backlog is in the system," Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank, wrote in a note Monday.

The EPI survey of 24,607 Americans was conducted online from April 14 to April 24. Of the survey respondents, 9.4% said they "applied successfully" for unemployment insurance benefits, while 3.4% said they tried but could not get through. An additional 1.9% of respondents said they did not apply because it was too difficult.

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