Idaho has maintained one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country throughout the pandemic, but the state's weekly jobless reports have only partially included a key indicator of recovery.
In its weekly reports, the Department of Labor has not included continued claims made by jobless Idahoans on federal pandemic unemployment programs. As continued claims made on the state insurance program have fallen, continued claims on federal programs have leveled off - meaning the state’s weekly report is offering an incomplete picture of Idaho’s unemployment trends.
Before going further, here's a primer: If you lose a job through no fault of your own, you can apply for unemployment benefits. That’s an initial claim.
The benefit you qualify for typically arrives in your bank account from Idaho’s unemployment trust fund each week that you remain unemployed and file a request for benefits. That’s a continuing claim.
“State benefits typically continue for around six months, but then after that the benefits dry up,” notes Michael Farren, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He specializes in unemployment and labor.
Unemployment insurance is complicated. There are many steps in place to ensure fairness, prevent fraud and make sure beneficiaries are actively searching for work while receiving payments. Additional measures taken by the federal government to stabilize the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the process and over-taxed antiquated systems used by many states, including Idaho, to pay jobless benefits.
Through the CARES Act, the federal government extended benefits an additional 13 weeks beyond states' six-month limit. That program is called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC. A second program, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, offers unemployment benefits to workers normally ineligible for state unemployment, like the self-employed, independent contractors and freelancers. Payments from those programs are federally funded.
“These programs have allowed people who otherwise would have been running back and trying to find whatever jobs that are available, to remain unemployed but not [be] searching for work,” Farren said.
“It's probably helped avoid spreading the virus even more,” he added.
In Idaho, anyone who files a claim for the first time is counted as an initial claim. But people who only qualify for federal benefits have not been counted in Idaho’s weekly report of continued claims.
For example: In the week ending October 24, The Idaho Department of Labor reported over 8,000 people received continuing claims. Not included in that tally: nearly 16,000 more Idahoans receiving continued claims paid by federal benefits. Added together, the number of Idahoans making continued unemployment claims that week was about 24,000; three times the number the state reported.
“I don't necessarily fault Idaho for only releasing the number of people on the state program,” Farren said when told of the unreported data. He said states are rightly focused on their own state programs. “But it would be good if the department had been able to provide a little bit more nuance to the data,” he said.
The state’s weekly report does include the total dollar amount of benefits paid to Idahoans, and breaks down how much money comes from each program. But because individual benefits vary widely and in many cases paid in arrears as a lump sum, calculating the number of individuals using only the publically reported total payment amounts is not possible.
The agency notes that some people shift between benefit programs from week-to-week as well, further complicating the analysis process.
Nearly all of Idaho’s neighboring states do include the number of PUA continued claims each week, and Wyoming and Nevada also include PEUC continued claims. Washington State does not include that data in its weekly reports, but does notify readers of its absence.
The Idaho Department of Labor did not make anyone available to comment for this story, but sent a lengthy statement saying their focus was on processing claims and getting benefits paid during an overwhelming time. The statement referenced other states’ ability to set up a new, separate system to handle claims for the federal programs — a step Idaho did not take.
Asked if the agency would be adding the data to future weekly releases, spokeswoman Georgia Smith wrote, “We are currently reviewing our UI weekly claims release to make sure the information is clearly defined, complete, timely, and as accurate as possible.”
While the number of Idahoans making continued claims on federal unemployment programs didn’t show up in the state’s weekly reports, it has been made available to federal agencies.
A breakdown of continued claims in each program is available on the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta website, but that dashboard does contain errors. Idaho’s PUA/PEUC claim data also appear in documentation from the federal Department of Labor.
Information on the federal DOL reports show about 22,000 people receiving federal unemployment benefits in Idaho in late July. That same week, there were 26,445 continuing claims reported by the state of Idaho. While continued claims paid to state program claimants declined 70% between the weeks ending July 25 and October 24, continued claims on the federal PUA and PEUC programs declined only 28% in that same time.
So, while continued claims paid by Idaho funds were falling — 25 weeks in a row as touted in a recent DOL weekly report — the total number of jobless Idahoans making continued unemployment claims was not falling as fast as labor department news releases suggested.
In its statement, the agency called its weekly data reports a barometer of employment trends. Specifically, just looking for spikes or sharp declines in initial claims on a weekly basis.
Farren says weekly reports never provide the full picture.
“The statistic that remains constant through all of this is the unemployment rate and the unemployment rate in Idaho is substantially up over last year,” he says.
One year ago, Idaho's unemployment rate was 2.9%. This August, the 4.2% unemployment rate was third-best nationally, but rose to 6.1% in September. The labor department says the increase is largely due to a 2.5% increase in the state labor force. Idaho’s measured workforce grew by more than 22,000 people in September.
The two federal unemployment benefit programs both expire December 26, and without action from congress, the thousands of Idahoans receiving those federal benefits will have that financial aid cut off as the pandemic economy teeters on the brink.
This story has been updated with a new headline and edits for clarification.
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