Why Pennsylvania Had Far More Jobless Claims Than Other States

Of the 3.3 million Americans applying for unemployment last week amid coronavirus shutdowns, the biggest share by far came from Pennsylvania, the fifth-largest state — but it may be just a sign that many more filings are to come.

It’s not clear if there was one overriding reason for the disparity, but there are several plausible explanations: The governor shut down business before other states, officials encouraged and made it easier for residents to apply for benefits, and administrators may be processing claims faster.

An estimated 378,908 people in Pennsylvania — or 13.1% of the unadjusted total — filed for unemployment benefits in the week ended March 21, more than 24 times the figure in the prior week.

That dwarfed the number of claims filed in much more populous states like California and Texas as well as New York, where about half of the nation’s known coronavirus cases are located. Pennsylvania is home to about 3.9% of the U.S. population.

Governor Tom Wolf had ordered restaurants and bars to close their doors in parts of the state starting last Monday and urged nonessential businesses to do the same. In a matter of days, local reports showed190,000 people had filed for benefits. Last Thursday, Wolf ordered all businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining” to close their physical locations. A similar directive was not seen in New York until a few days later.

The Keystone State also tried to encourage people to apply and clearly outlined who qualifies in the unique circumstances.

On Monday, March 16, state officials issued astatement outlining a liberal list of criteria for potential eligibility. It included residents whose employers temporarily closed or reduced workers’ hours due to Covid-19; employees who were told to stay home to avoid getting or spreading the disease; people told to quarantine or self-isolate; or those subject to local restrictions.

Some states, like New York, have been so overwhelmed by the exponential increase in claims that their websites are crashing and their hiring more people to process the claims. In others, the phone lines are jammed.

Also, in some respects, Pennsylvania was already hurting. Sectors like manufacturing and agriculture had already been under pressure from the U.S.-China trade war. Manufacturers were battered further by supply-chain disruptions as a result of the pandemic.

Many Pennsylvanians were already on the edge, and “as soon as the virus hit, they were ready to file,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.

As for next week, Pennsylvania is likely to post another outsize number. The Central Penn Business Journalreported Thursday that nearly 650,000 claims have been filed since March 16, almost 300,000 more than what was reported by the Labor Department.

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