The number of idled workers collecting unemployment benefits in South Carolina continued to decline in recent weeks, but that doesn't mean they all returned to their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Figures collected by the U.S. Department of Labor show the number of people drawing money out from the unemployment trust fund dropped by 47,263 individuals between late July and the middle of August.
But a large portion of that decline — roughly 25 percent of it — can be attributed to people running out of state benefits and being picked up by the federal government.
Traditionally, people who lose a job in South Carolina are only allowed to collect 20 weeks of assistance from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. After that, they are normally on their own.
But that is not what is happening now.
Congress passed a law earlier this year that provided an additional 13 weeks of assistance to every American who lost a job amid the pandemic, and the federal government picked up the tab for those costs.
As of Aug. 15, roughly 30,639 South Carolinians had used up their 20 weeks of state aid and were benefiting from the federal extension.
That number is expected to climb through September and October as more people use up their state unemployment eligibility during the current economic recession. Those individuals will no longer be burdening the state unemployment trust fund, but that doesn't mean that they will be back in the workforce.
Joey Von Nessen, a research economist with the University of South Carolina, pointed out that the unemployed workers who used up their 20 weeks of state benefits would have first filed for assistance in late March or early April.
The fact that more than 30,000 of them are still out of work, he said, shows how big of a hole South Carolina's economy is climbing out of.
"That reflects the fact that the economy is still recovering," Von Nessen said. "We are still in a position where we have a long way to go."
Recently, DEW director Dan Ellzey has emphasized the decline in new unemployment claims the agency is receiving on a month-to-month basis.
But that is only part of the overall unemployment picture in South Carolina, which is still worse than anything the state experienced in recent history.
Other data help illustrate the full scope of the crisis. They include the number of people relying on the extra 13 weeks of federal assistance; people who continue to certify state jobless claims that were filed earlier this year; and the contractors, self-employed individuals and so-called gig workers who are receiving unemployment payments from the federal government through the rest of the year.
With all of those categories added up, South Carolina had more than 241,000 residents in the middle of August who were relying on either state or federal unemployment benefits to pay bills.
All of those people were receiving an extra $600 per week through the federal government earlier this year. But that money lapsed at the end of July, as Congress and President Donald Trump failed to agree on a deal that would pump billions of dollars into the economy.
Since then, everyone receiving unemployment benefits in South Carolina has survived on $326 per week, or less, depending on the applicant's earlier wages and income.
Trump unilaterally advanced a plan in August to make an extra $300 per week available to millions of Americans who are currently unemployed. DEW is currently in the process of formulating a plan to distribute that money.
But with only $44 billion available nationwide, those funds are likely to run out in a matter of weeks. And anyone currently receiving less than $100 per week in jobless benefits won't be eligible for that extra $300.
Democrats in Congress continue to push for an added $600 per week for every unemployed American through the end of the year. But many Republicans are resistant to that plan, arguing that much money will dissuade people from returning to work.