Iowa jobless claims numbers daunting

Initial jobless claims keep climbing in Iowa. Yet, as the crisis persists, the safety net for Iowa’s unemployed is about to unravel.

In the last week, another 11,125 Iowans applied for unemployment insurance. That brings the total, in the 24 weeks since the COVID-19 recession began in February, to over 400,000 — or almost a quarter of the entire Iowa labor force. Of that, nearly 388,000 (387,847) are the change over the last 17 weeks, in which these numbers first spiked.

Let’s put that in perspective: 400,000 unemployment claims is over four times the number filed over the first 24 weeks of the Great Recession. Over that span, from December 2007 to May 2008, weekly claims peaked at 13,542 in late December 2007 — the only week in the Great Recession when Iowa unemployment claims topped the 10,000 mark. In the last 24 weeks, weekly claims have exceeded 10,000 eleven times. Indeed, the average since early February is almost 17,000 new weekly claims — 3,000 higher than the worst week of the Great Recession.

As the crisis persists, the safety net for Iowa’s unemployed is about to unravel. On July 25, the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program — the $600 weekly boost to regular state benefits — comes to an end. For the nearly 150,000 Iowans currently receiving unemployment benefits, the checks will be a lot smaller: For an unemployed worker who had been working full-time at minimum wage, the weekly check will shrink from over $800 to barely $200. Once the applications of the 11,125 Iowans who filed for unemployment last week are processed, the PUC will be a distant memory — and their benefits will replace barely half of their lost wages.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

Warning: Edge of a cliff

With COVID cases surging, extending federal support for unemployment insurance is crucial to fighting this recession — and the virus that caused it.

In less than two weeks, the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program — the $600 federal supplement to unemployment insurance benefits — will come to a close. The impact, for Iowa’s working families and for the Iowa economy, is likely to be devastating.

Our regular unemployment insurance system reaches only about half of the workforce and replaces barely half of an unemployed worker’s wages. In order to support those workers thrown out of work by the pandemic and, more broadly, to support the public health goal of sheltering in place, the CARES Act extended eligibility to most of those not covered (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA) and added $600 a week to the benefit paid under regular UI and the PUA.

This means a full-time minimum wage worker who lost their job qualifies for a regular weekly benefit of about $152.00 (Iowa unemployment insurance replaces about 52 percent of wages), and an additional $600 under the PUC — for a weekly benefit of $752.00. An unemployed worker had had been earning the median hourly wage in Iowa ($18.40) qualifies for a weekly benefit of $387.00 and an additional $600 under the PUC — for a weekly benefit of $987.00.

The $600 supplement under the PUC and the entire benefit paid to non-traditional workers under the PUA are all paid for the federal dollars. That has had a huge stimulus effect in Iowa, sustaining not just individual consumption but state and local tax revenues as well. Currently there are 145,875 Iowans either receiving regular UI+PUC or waiting for their claim to be processed, and another 18,456 receiving PUA+PUC. That represents an inflow of over $102 million into the state every week. Come July 25th, when only the federal contribution to the regular PUA benefit is left, and that will slow to a trickle, barely $3 million a week.

The result? Many of the unemployed will see a substantial benefit cut, tumbling from near full replacement of wages for workers earning less than $65,000 to barely half that. At half-wages, few will be able to meet basic expenses. That blow will reverberate throughout the economy. According to new estimates by the Economic Policy Institute, failure to extend the PUC beyond July will cost Iowa another 42,586 jobs over the next year.

Meager benefits and persistently high unemployment, in turn, will put new demands on other forms of social support, including SNAP and rental and utility assistance. And they will press the unemployed — unable to pay their bills — back into the labor force at the expense of their health and the public health. With COVID cases surging in Iowa and many other states, the extension of federal support for unemployment insurance is crucial to fighting this recession — and the virus that caused it.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

Historically high: Jobless claims vs Great Recession

New unemployment claims are trending down, but still rising and in the latest week were still nearly as high as the worst week of the Great Recession.

The pace of new unemployment claims slowed in Iowa to 13,040 for the week ending May 16, but still nearly as high as new claims in the worst week of the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the running total of new claims since mid-March — at 313,150 — is about 18 percent of Iowa’s entire labor force.

On top of that, Iowa has slowly begun to process claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the federally funded benefits for those ineligible for regular UI. In the week ending May 9, there were 15,219 Iowans on continuing PUA claims and 4,552 new applications.

The PUA has enormous potential for the self-employed, independent contractors, platform or “gig” workers, and new entrants to the labor force. It pays a weekly benefit of between $200 and $590 (depending on earnings and dependents). Once approved, recipients can received up to 39 weeks of benefits — retroactive to early February and running through December. Receipt of PUA benefits brings with it another $600 month in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), the federal top-off that runs through the last week of July.

All of this is funded entirely with federal dollars — making it an important source of economic stimulus for the state as well.

But the rollout of the PUA has been slow. Initial applicants were summarily rejected by Iowa Workforce Development and the first payments did not trickle out until almost two months after the program was put in place. And the number of new and continuing PUA claims in Iowa (just under 20,000) as of this morning is very low given the number of Iowans that could benefit from this program (taken together, those reporting some form of self-employment income and new entrants probably account for about 20 percent of the labor force). Under normal conditions, Iowa pays unemployment claims to only about 41 percent of the unemployed. The PUA could and should extend that coverage dramatically.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.