Since the beginning of the COVID-19 public health emergency, more than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment. In roughly two months, the U.S. economy has ground almost to a halt with many states beginning the gradual process of reopening.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that there have been approximately 36.5 million first-time unemployment claimants since March. According to a Federal Reserve report, one in five people who had a job in February were furloughed or had lost jobs by March or April.
The effects have been felt in Arkansas, as well. The Department of Labor reports that there were 118,917 individuals who received unemployment benefits for the week that ended May 2. For the week that ended May 9, there were a total of 12,416 claims filed. This was a drop from the previous week, when 13,448 unemployment claims were filed.
In response to COVID-19, the state and federal governments have marshaled resources to provided increased unemployment benefits. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act expanded unemployment insurance benefits, providing increased time for benefits from 26 to 39 weeks, increasing most payments by $600, and providing benefits to previously uncovered workers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
According to Arkansas Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston, the state has issued more than $350 million in unemployment benefits from state coffers and federal funds. As of mid-May, he said that Arkansas had paid out approximately $357.9 million in unemployment benefits.
The largest portion of that unemployment payout came in the form of the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments, which provides an additional $600 to claimants. This funding, part of the CARES Act, totals approximately $248 million.
An additional $109 million has come out of the Arkansas Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which is the state fund that pays benefits to unemployed workers. To date, the state has paid roughly $109 million from this fund, Preston said.
The state trust fund, according to Preston, is in good standing despite the increased number of unemployment claims. The fund was reportedly on track to hit its $1 billion cap this year before the increased usage. At the current time, Preston said the fund stands at approximately $778 million.
Preston estimates that an additional $500,000 has been paid through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which extends the normal amount of unemployment time allowed by 13 weeks.
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program has not yet gone online in Arkansas. This program provides unemployment to independent contractors, gig economy workers, self-employed individuals and other who typically do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Approximately 30,000 individuals are expected to file a PUA claim in Arkansas. During a May 14 press conference, Preston said the PUA system is expected to begin accepting applications the week of May 18.