On Thursday morning at 8:30, the Department of Labor (DOL) will release its report on first-time unemployment insurance (UI) claims for the week ending May 16. It will be the ninth report in the period since parts of the nation went into lockdown, during which well over 30 million Americans have been recorded as filing a new claim. News coverage and analysis likely will cite a firm number – it probably will be wrong, or at least incomplete.

This is a result both of who is or is not counted and how the data are interpreted. For example, the topline number does not include those self-employed and gig workers who filed claims under the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program recently passed by Congress. More than 840,000 workers filed PUA claims during the week of May 9. These claims were included in a paragraph and tables in the most recent DOL report, but not combined with regular claims to get an overall number of new filings.

On the other hand, the topline number of new claims includes a “seasonal adjustment,” which dampens fluctuations due to seasonal variations. This makes it easier to see trends and is very helpful in most cases—except during extremely fast and large job losses due to cataclysmic events like the coronavirus pandemic. The upward adjustment applied in the spring substantially inflated the already extremely high number of new claims in recent weeks. The cumulative seasonally adjusted (SA) number of new claims over the past eight weeks is 3 million higher than the not seasonally adjusted number (NSA).

Some of the best reporting on new unemployment claims has captured these nuances, although they largely remain buried due to the long-standing and in most cases preferred tradition of presenting seasonally adjusted numbers.

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