Almost One Fifth Of Americans Are Unemployed And Many Are Still Waiting For Benefits

Luis Mora stands in front of the closed offices of the New York State Department of Labor
Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

Two million more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, which means that almost one in every five Americans are now unemployed — and many of them are still waiting to receive their unemployment benefits, ABC News reported on Thursday. Of the almost 36.5 million people who have filed unemployment claims since March 15, only an estimated 60 percent of them have gotten their checks.

Some of the estimated 40 percent who have not yet gotten their unemployment benefits have gone months without any kind of income. One woman told ABC News that she was going on nine weeks without any money coming in, and no reprieve on her bills. She revealed that her family has been surviving on the money they’d saved to travel to her daughter’s open-heart surgery.

To make matters worse, most of the people filing for unemployment don’t have a financial buffer. Economists told ABC News that the average person who files for unemployment only has about $1,200 in their bank account when they file for benefits. Many of them have very little or nothing at all in savings. Many unemployment applicants live paycheck to paycheck, economists told ABC News, and they literally cannot afford to not have money coming in on a monthly basis.

Unfortunately, many of the people applying for unemployment benefits are low wage workers. One survey conducted by the Federal Reserve found that 40 percent of people who lost their jobs in March made less than $40,000 annually. Overall, the people who can least afford the financial hardship are being impacted the most by the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to ABC News, processing unemployment claims has been incredibly difficult for state departments of labor. They’ve been deluged with applications, creating massive backlogs. In many cases, states don’t even have enough employees to verify and process the applications, and they are dealing with woefully outdated systems.

There was also confusion about how to process applications for people who didn’t qualify for state benefits but did qualify for federal benefits under the newly passed CARES Act, ABC News reported.

Some states are doing better than others at getting through the backlog, according to a nonprofit called One Fair Wage, which advocates for worker’s rights. Its estimates showed that only 56 percent of workers who’d filed for unemployment had received benefits as of May 14. It broke down the numbers state by state to show which states were doing the best at getting unemployment checks out and which were doing the worst.

According to the One Fair Wage report, as of May 14, only three states — Connecticut, Vermont, and West Virginia — had sent out unemployment checks to all applicants. In both Hawaii and Florida, only 32 percent of applicants had received checks — the lowest rate in the country.

Economists told ABC News that as states work through their backlogged application, checks will start coming in a more timely fashion. But for some Americans, it still won’t be soon enough.