Only 14.2 percent of the 12 million people who filed new unemployment claims in March had received their funds that month, according to an analysis by The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank.
"While many of the claims that started in mid-March were likely paid not until April, this figure is yet another sign underscoring the major structural challenges facing the unemployment program as it responds to the COVID-19 crisis," said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at Century.
The results varied vastly from state to state as millions are forced to claim unemployment benefits while the coronavirus shuts down large parts of the economy, overwhelming state systems. In Rhode Island, more than half of all claimants were paid out in March, while in Florida the figure was 2.4 percent.
Stettner notes that states are given up to 21 days to make initial payments but says the delays on a constrained system mean some people will have to wait for a long time for much-needed emergency relief.
“We’ve heard countless stories across the nation of the record number of workers who tried to file for unemployment, only to be met with crashing websites, unreachable phone lines and states unable to process claims. Even among the workers fortunate enough to have their claims processed, the overwhelming majority did not receive emergency relief in March," he said.
A seasonally adjusted 26 million workers have applied for unemployment benefits in the last five weeks, and millions more are expected to join their ranks this week. Congress expanded benefits as part of a more than $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress last month.
A separate study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), another left-leaning think tank, estimated that the figures dramatically undercounted the number of unemployed people because of the various clogs in the system.
The EPI study, based on survey data, found that in addition to those who successfully filed unemployment claims in April, an additional 36 percent couldn't successfully complete the application and another 20 percent didn't even try because it was too difficult.
"After accounting for these workers — who applied but could not get through or did not try because of the difficult process — about half of potential UI applicants are actually receiving benefits," the study's authors, Ben Zipperer and Elise Gould, wrote.