Last weekend, the N.C. Division of Employment Security quietly changed the reporting of unemployment insurance claims, resulting in a significantly lower count of claims activity since March 15. DES introduced a count of people filing claims and emphasized that number rather than the number of initial claims filed. More data is usually good to have, but DES should be careful about introducing a new measurement in the middle of a crisis like the coronavirus.

I haven’t been able to determine if the U.S. Department of Labor approved the use of new data. “USDOL cannot comment on what North Carolina reports on its own site regarding individuals filing weekly. USDOL reports initial and continuing weekly claims numbers by state on Thursdays at 8:30 am for the prior week,” a department spokesman told me.

The change isn’t consistent with claims reported by South Carolina and Virginia. Neither state separately reports the number of people filing claims.

The change in emphasis should catch reporters and other observers off guard. Several news organizations have reported as of Monday morning, 1.1 million (1,112,790) North Carolinians have filed unemployment insurance claims since March 15. DES believes that number should be 853,407 — 23% less.

In its weekly release on initial unemployment claims issued Thursday, May 14, USDOL reported 2.6 million claims (not seasonally adjusted) were filed in the week ending May 9.

At his Tuesday coronavirus briefing, Gov. Roy Cooper explained the discrepancy: Some people are filing twice. If they’re denied one type of claim, then they can file for another. He said 861,000 people have filed claims and about 500,000 are being paid.

DES subtly changed the emphasis from the number of claims to the number of people filing claims:

  • On Friday, May 8, DES reported that as of May 7, 1,085,276 claims had been filed.
  • On May 11, DES reported as of May 10, 1,112,790 claims had been filed and 853,407 people had filed claims. The larger number was in bold print. It was the first time DES offered two different counts. “Note that we are now providing the number of individuals who have filed claims along with the total number of claims filed,” said the DES news release.
  • On May 12, DES reported 861,713 individuals filed claims, and there had been 1,129,775 claims filed. The smaller number was in bold print.

Kerry McComber, director of government and public relations for DES in the N.C. Department of Commerce, produces the daily release. I asked her by email why DES changed the way it reported claims.

“We are beginning to highlight the number of people who have filed claims (861,713) over the number of claims filed (1,129,775). It’s not a one-to-one ratio because an individual may have filed more than one claim. For instance, you have to file and be found ineligible for state unemployment insurance before you can receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. So, an independent contractor seeking PUA benefits would count as two claims — one for state UI, one for PUA. The public has shown greater interest in knowing the number of people who are seeking or receiving benefits, so we made the decision to display the information this way,” she said.

While her explanation sounds reasonable, she didn’t say which number DES reports to the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration for the agency’s Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims report. That report contains data on new claims for the nation and individual states. I asked her which number DES reports and am waiting for an answer.