Millions of the newly jobless are going without benefits as the unemployment system buckles under the weight of new claims, according to our new national survey, conducted in mid-April.
For every 10 people who said they successfully filed for unemployment benefits during the previous four weeks:
- Three to four additional people tried to apply but could not get through the system to make a claim.
- Two additional people did not try to apply because it was too difficult to do so.
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. To quantify the undercount, we look at the 21.5 million workers who filed for unemployment benefits from March 22 to April 18. Our results suggest:
- An additional 7.8 to 12.2 million people could have filed for benefits had the process been easier.
- After accounting for these workers—who applied but could not get through or did not try because of the difficult process—about half of potential UI applicants are actually receiving benefits.
When we extrapolate our survey findings to the full five weeks of UI claims since March 15, we estimate that an additional 8.9–13.9 million people could have filed for benefits had the process been easier.
These findings on the millions of frustrated filers and the UI system’s low payment rate highlight the need for policies to improve rather than hinder the UI application process. At a minimum, states should presume everyone is eligible and immediately pay benefits, only verifying eligibility and reviewing claims after the unprecedented wave of claims slows down.
Quantifying reports of frustrated filers for unemployment
An estimated 24.4 million workers filed for unemployment benefits from March 15 through April 18. But while the CARES Act significantly expanded workers’ UI eligibility and benefits during the coronavirus crisis, widespread reports indicate that long-neglected state UI systems are unable to handle the volume of applications, preventing laid-off or furloughed workers from receiving necessary unemployment benefits. To gauge how well the UI system is handling the new caseloads, we used Google Surveys to ask 25,000 people, “Did you apply for unemployment benefits in the last 4 weeks?” (Google Surveys collects responses from visitors to news and other internet sites; see Google Survey’s description for more details and see the paper by Brynjolfsson et al. for an application of Google Survey data to measure the prevalence of remote work during the pandemic.) From April 14 to April 24, 24,607 respondents (98%) answered the survey.
To our knowledge, ours is the one of the first national surveys that asks about the social safety net and its performance in the COVID-19 era. In the process of writing this draft, we became aware of another survey, conducted by Navigator and Global Strategy Group April 17–22, that asked 1,022 registered voters about their experience and difficulty with accessing unemployment benefits. In addition, a survey conducted by Bick and Blanden April 22–23 found that many respondents have yet to apply for UI benefits.
Figure A shows the shares of people who responded each of the six answers to the question, “Did you apply for unemployment benefits in the last 4 weeks?” (respondents could select one of the six).