It Takes a Hurricane to Produce Good Unemployment Numbers

Amidst all the speculation, repeated here and elsewhere, whether the economy is or isn’t yet recovering from a recession, or whether a “jobless recovery” counts as a recovery or not, we finally have some dramatically improved unemployment statistics this week. But don’t get too excited. The number of new unemployment claims filed last week, at its lowest level since February, is so low in significant part due to “the closure of state offices in such areas as North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia” as a result of Hurricane Isabel, which affected workers’ ability to file jobless claims and also kept many state unemployment offices from being able to receive them. (See Smart Money article.) And while it’s too soon to speculate how many people are out of work temporarily or permanently due to hurricane damage, my own experience earlier this year with a local tornado causes me to suspect that the numbers will really zoom upward next week in those states, and remain high in the rest of the country.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases each Thursday its statistics for the previous week’s new unemployment claims. The number everyone wants to hear is 400,000 or less: any number above that is what economists have determined as a “lackluster job market.” (See Reuters article.) The number released today for last week’s first-time claims fell even more sharply than predicted to 381,000, down from a revised 400,000 a week earlier, and to its lowest since 378,000 in the Feb. 8 week. This number surprised even Wall Street economists, who forecast new claims at 400,000 compared to the original estimate of 399,000.

Because of the volatility of the weekly statistics, aptly demonstrated by this week’s hurricane-related decline, the four-week average is considered a more accurate figure. The four-week average announced today, was 407,000, a decline of 4,000 from the previous week. Last week’s blip (if it’s not premature to call it that) may also affect September’s monthly statistics, scheduled for release on October 3, as the employment rate was otherwise predicted to rise from August 2003’s 6.1 percent to 6.2 percent.

Amidst all the talk about unemployment statistics are the stories of the unemployed, for whom their personal unemployment rate is 100 percent. A recent Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette article chronicles a typical day at the unemployment office (when workers are able to get there, that is) which is all too familiar to workers in every state and every county throughout the country. (See Day at the Unemployment Office.) Those individual stories should not be forgotten in the wake of the cold hard numbers issued every week, especially once they return next week, as they undoubtedly will, to the numbers representing a continued “lackluster job market.”

Need to Find Your State’s Unemployment Office? See our site’s page on state government agencies.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.