Posted by: Josh Lehner | March 26, 2020

COVID-19 Drive Record Initial Claims (Wonky)

By now I’m sure all of you have seen the eye popping charts today of surging initial claims for unemployment insurance. I add my own #DataViz to the stack below but really wanted to add a few points of clarification on the data given this is one of the best real-time indicators available about the economy.

This morning the U.S. Department of Labor reported there were 3.2 million initial claims for unemployment insurance last week across the country, setting a new record by a considerable amount. This was expected given various state reports that have come out, plus all the announced closures from around the country. That said, the increases are still staggering. And we know they represent an undercount of the situation for a few reasons.

Now if you happened to scroll through the U.S. release or are used to downloading the data from the Department of Labor (Hey! All 3 of us raised our hands!) you may have noticed that the Oregon number for last week was 22,800. That’s an Oregon record as well but no where close to the eye watering national figures in terms of the severity of the increase. There is a good reason for this.

What is usually reported are the number of processed initial claims. Typically the number of initial claims filed is equal to the number of initial claims processed which is equal to the number of initial claims reported. However, the swiftness and severity of the changes in recent weeks was so large that there is a backlog of claims being processed today.

Thankfully our friends at the Oregon Employment Department filled all of us in on what is going on. OED issued their own press release this morning indicating that they saw 76,500 initial claims for unemployment insurance filed last week. Their staff is working as fast as they can, managed to process a record number of claims without warning, but that does mean there is a backlog they are working currently working through. When we put it all together, you get a chart that looks something like the following.

Now, what does this mean? First it means there are a huge number of workers who are being laid off due to COVID-19 and the social distancing measures being put in place. Keep in mind that these are the right health policies to fight the spread of the virus. Congress is acting to help provide the financial band aids in the meantime to allow the economy to recover once the health situation improves.

Second, we should expect these initial claims to remain large for another couple of weeks. As the current backlog is processed, they will begin to show up in the reported data at the national level. This initial surge in claims is probably tied to the first round of social distancing measures, but as those policies ramp up or cover more industries or regions of the country, we will see more workers file for unemployment insurance. Furthermore, not everyone gets laid off one day and files for UI the next day. It will take a few weeks for everyone impacted to file, plus the newly expanded UI benefits will allow more workers impacted by COVID-19 to receive the needed assistance.

Finally, our office appreciates the Oregon Employment Department for letting all of us know what is happening in real time. Normally we would have to wait for all of the claims to be processed and reported before we would know the extent of what is happening. However given the circumstance OED was able to not only process record numbers of claims, but also communicate what is happening. Fr those unaware, OED also has a COVID-19 website with information for employers and employees in addition to more information and data on the claims. They provide underlying details in terms of which industries those filing for UI come from, which county they live in and the like. In the weeks ahead when all of this surge of claims is fully processed, this data will become even more important and will help our office’s industry forecasts.


  1. […] Oregon Office of Economic Analysis has a new post about the number of state and federal unemployment insurance claims and the outlook moving […]

  2. Thanks for these updates.

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