The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits surged to a record of nearly 3.3 million last week, official data revealed Thursday, as strict measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic brought the country to a sudden halt.
Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose 3,001,000 to a seasonally adjusted 3.28 million in the week ending March 21, the Labor Department said, more than quadrupling the all-time high of 695,000 in October 1982 and shattering the Great Recession peak of 665,000 in March 2009.
The surges in weekly applications is the clearest evidence yet of the coronavirus’s devastating blow to the economy, which has forced the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) to take extraordinary steps and the U.S. Congress to assemble a record $2 trillion stimulus package, said to be the largest rescue package ever.
Economists say the economy is already in recession.
The pace of layoffs is sure to accelerate as the U.S. economy sinks into a recession. Revenue has collapsed at restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, gyms and airlines. Auto sales are plummeting, and carmakers have closed factories. Most such employers face loan payments and other fixed costs, so they are cutting jobs to save money.
“During the week ending March 21, the increase in initial claims is due to the impacts of the COVID-19 virus,” the Labor Department said." States continued to cite services industries broadly, particularly accommodation and food service. Additional industries heavily cited for the increases included the health care and social assistance, arts, entertainment and recreation, transportation and warehousing, and manufacturing industries.”
‘U.S. may well be in recession’
Governors in at least 18 states, accounting for nearly half the country’s population, have ordered residents to stay mostly indoors. “Nonessential” businesses have also been ordered closed. According to economists, a fifth of the workforce is on some form of lockdown.
The U.S. “may well be in recession,” but progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus will dictate when the economy can fully reopen, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said Thursday in an interview on NBC’s Today Show.
“We are not experts in pandemic... We would tend to listen to the experts. Dr. Fauci said something like the virus is going to set the timetable, and that sounds right to me,” Powell said, in reference to Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is on the White House’s coronavirus task force.
“The first order of business will be to get the spread of the virus under control and then resume economic activity.”
The aim of the trillions of dollars in lending and bond purchases the Fed has authorized over the past two weeks is precisely to let an otherwise healthy economy pause long enough to control the virus, he said, before what could be a strong rebound later in the year.
Last week’s claims data likely will have no impact on March’s employment report as it falls outside the period during which the government surveyed employers for nonfarm payrolls, which was the week to March 14. Economists, however, say the rush for benefits in that survey week suggests payrolls declined this month, which would end nearly 9.5 years of job growth.
“Jobs will decline in March,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania, told Reuters. “There are numerous reports of laid-off workers unable to file for unemployment insurance because so many people are trying to file at the same time. Millions of job losses are likely in coming weeks.”
As job losses mount, some economists say the nation's unemployment rate could approach 13% by May. By comparison, the highest jobless rate during the Great Recession, which ended in 2009, was 10%.
The economic deterioration has been swift. As recently as February, the unemployment rate was at a 50-year low of 3.5%, and the economy was growing steadily if modestly. Yet by the April-June quarter of the year, some economists think the economy will shrink at its steepest annual pace ever – a contraction that could reach 30%.
With layoffs surging, a significant expansion of unemployment benefits for the millions who will lose jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak was included in an economic relief bill nearing final approval in the Congress. One provision in the bill would provide an extra $600 a week on top of the unemployment aid that states provide. Another would extend 13 additional weeks of benefits beyond the six months of jobless aid that most states offer.
Separate legislation passed last week provides up to $1 billion to states to enhance their ability to process claims. But that money will take time to be disbursed.
Jessy Morancy of Hollywood, Florida was laid off Friday from her job as a wheelchair attendant and customer service agent at Fort Lauderdale Airport. Morancy, 29, called the state unemployment office Monday to try to file for unemployment benefits but encountered a recorded message telling her to call back later.
She was also concerned that even a full unemployment benefit of $275 a week would be less than half of what she earned at her job and insufficient to provide for her children, ages 10 and 7.
"I'm still in a state of shock," Morancy said.
She said she has heard that airline employees might continue to receive salaries if Congress provides financial assistance to the airlines. Yet, even so, it's not clear that employees like her who work for contractors – Eulen America, in her case – would be eligible.
"If these companies are going to get a bailout, why not include us?" Morancy said.
Even for those able to file a claim, the benefits will take time to kick in. It typically takes two to three weeks before applicants receive any money. State agencies must first contact their former employers to verify their work and earnings history. Only then can the employee's weekly unemployment benefits be calculated.
Worsening the problem, most state agencies that handle unemployment claims are operating at historically low funding levels and staffing that are intended to handle a trickle of claims. Just weeks ago, the job market was in the strongest shape it had been in decades.
Kim Boldrini-Sen, 41, has also struggled to even file her claim. She has tried in two states: In Connecticut, where she works as an acupuncturist in a private practice, and in New York, where she lives and has her own acupuncture business.
In Connecticut, she thought her application had been submitted. But when she returned last week to re-file as applicants are required to do each week, she found there was no record of her initial filing. After taking an hour to re-file, she received a pop-up notice that she was ineligible to do so online.
In New York, the state's website repeatedly crashed when she was halfway through filling out her request. When she finally managed to press submit, she received a pop-up saying she had to file over the phone. That hasn't worked well, either.
"I've called at all hours of the day, she said." That's been my life for a week, and I still can't get through to anyone."
On Monday, the New York State Department of Labor tweeted, "If you have been unable to get through our phone and / or online system this week, please keep trying."
"We are working as hard as we can to ensure that all benefits are paid and appreciate your patience," the agency said on Twitter.
Ellen Zentner, an economist at Morgan Stanley, said in a note to clients that 17 million jobs could be lost through May – twice the entire 8.7 million jobs that were lost in the Great Recession. She expects the unemployment rate to average 12.8% in the April-June quarter, which would be the highest level since the 1930s.
Still, Zentner also expects the economy to start recovering by the second half of the year. It will take time for things to return to something close to normal, but she projects that the unemployment rate could still top 5% at the end of next year.
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