Almost one-third of unemployment benefits estimated to be owed to the millions of Americans who lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus slump haven’t been paid yet, as flagship policies struggle to cope with the unprecedented wave of layoffs.

The U.S. Treasury disbursed $146 billion in unemployment benefits in the three months through May, according to data published Monday -- more than in the whole of 2009, when jobless rates peaked after the financial crisis.

But even that historic figure falls short of a total bill that should have reached about $214 billion for the period, according to Bloomberg calculations based on weekly unemployment filings and the average size of those claims.

The estimated gap of some $67 billion shows how emergency efforts to boost payments, and deliver them via creaking state-level systems, are lagging the needs of a jobs crisis that’s seen more than 40 million people file for unemployment as the economy shut down.

Safety Net
The gaps in America’s social safety net are becoming apparent at the same time as protests erupt over longstanding racial inequities. The debate over how and when to reopen businesses even as the pandemic continues is also turning acrimonious, in a nation that increasingly feels like a tinderbox.

There’s “a huge hole,” said Jay Shambaugh, an economist at Brookings Institution who has been tracking the unemployment payments. “There’s a lot more money that should have gone out that has not gone out.”

The bill is still mounting. Economists estimate that another 1.8 million people filed for unemployment last week. That data is due out on Thursday, while Friday’s monthly numbers are forecast to show a jobless rate of 19.5% in May, the highest since the Great Depression.

When the pandemic struck, policy makers responded with a $600-a-week boost to unemployment benefits, alongside measures to make more people eligible. The aim was to stop the spread of the virus by encouraging laid-off workers to stay home, and cushion its economic impact by replacing lost incomes, sometimes in full.

But for many people the money simply hasn’t turned up.

Bob Radcliffe, who lives in Morristown, New Jersey, lost his job selling touchscreen displays to retailers in early March. He filed for unemployment shortly afterwards, expecting to get the state’s maximum payment, about $1,300 a week after the federal top-up. 

By that reckoning, he’s now owed almost $15,000. But Radcliffe, who has four children under eight, says he still hasn’t received any benefits or an explanation for the holdup. For now, he’s taking advantage of the three-month mortgage forbearance on offer at his bank, and surviving on his last commission check.

“I’ve had money to live. I’m not a desperate case,” he said. “But I’m running out.”

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