About 2.4 million people filed claims for unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department announced Thursday, bringing the nine-week total since the coronavirus crisis struck to more than 38 million.
The weekly initial claims data continued on a downward trend, falling for the seventh straight week, but the overall level remains at historic highs. "The jobs numbers will be worse before they get better," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned earlier this week.
Meanwhile, the debate over enhanced unemployment benefits — which provide an additional $600 per week in support, over and above state-level payments — continues in Washington.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-TN) reportedly said this week that the additional benefits were “crazy policy” that might motivate some people to stay on unemployment and avoid returning to work. Although critics have pointed out that workers aren’t able to make that decision on their own, McConnell nevertheless vowed Wednesday that the enhanced benefits "will not be in the next bill,” referring to the next round of relief and stimulus funding currently under consideration.
Top Republican leaders have repeatedly expressed their concerns on the issue and are joining forces with the White House and powerful business lobbies including the Chamber of Commerce to oppose any extension of the enhanced benefits, which expire at the end of July. Mnuchin said Thursday that the administration and lawmakers will need to fix the enhanced unemployment benefits, given what he called “the quirk that in certain cases we’re actually paying people more than they made.”
Conservatives worry that any delay in workers returning to their jobs could slow the recovery. “The government is competing with businesses for workers, and that’s the craziest idea ever,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL). “We can’t hurt our ability to reopen the economy.”
Democrats are pushing for an extension of the benefits, citing the ongoing need for aid amid the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. “The economic need is not going away,” Martha Gimbel, a labor economist at Schmidt Futures, told The Washington Post. “The fact that we are two months into this, and we’re still getting multi-million claims numbers, speaks to how deep and intense the economic pain is right now.”
What’s next: The enhanced jobless benefits will be a point of contention in the next stimulus bill, which lawmakers are expected to negotiate in the coming weeks. The $3 trillion bill passed by House Democrats last week would extend the benefits through January, but Republicans appear to be unified in trimming those benefits back, if not eliminating them entirely. GOP staffers told the Post that in the end, they expect to see some kind of compromise on the issue, with Congress passing either a smaller weekly enhancement taking effect after July or a one-time bonus for workers who return to their jobs