3.3 million file for unemployment claims, shattering records

"This marks the highest level of seasonally adjusted initial claims in the history of the seasonally adjusted series."

  • By Jim Zarroli and Avie Schneider/NPR

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(Washington) — A record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week as the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the country. The Labor Department’s report Thursday was one of the first official indicators of how many people have suddenly been forced out of work nationally.

“This marks the highest level of seasonally adjusted initial claims in the history of the seasonally adjusted series,” the department said. “The previous high was 695,000 in October of 1982.” The Labor Department’s records go back to 1967.

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Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, appearing on NBC’s Today Show, said what businesses and analysts already know: “We may well be in a recession.”

“This is a unique situation,” Powell added. “People are being asked to close their business, to stay home from work, and to not engage in certain economic activity, and so they are pulling back. At a certain point, we will get the virus under control and confidence will return.”

The staggering jobless claims figure was well above the levels seen during the darkest days of the Great Recession, and the worst isn’t over yet, economic forecasters say.

The crisis has cut a giant swath through the energy, travel, transportation, hotel and restaurant sectors, with large and small companies suddenly forced to furlough employees.

States that depend heavily on tourism, such as Nevada and Florida, as well as oil-and-gas towns like Midland, Texas, will be especially hard hit, but the damage will be felt almost everywhere, according to a Brookings Institution report.

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The hotel industry alone has lost as many as 1 million jobs this month, the American Hotel and Lodging Association says.

“It is a huge shock and we are trying to cope with it and keep it under control,” says James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Earlier this week, he said unemployment would hit 30%. But he tempered those remarks Wednesday, saying he expected the number to fall again quickly.

The Economic Policy Institute had estimated 3.4 million people filed for first-time claims during the week ending March 21. That compares with an average of 225,000 a week during the past six months.

Unionized hospitality workers wait in line in a basement garage to apply for unemployment benefits at the Hospitality Training Academy Friday, March 13, 2020, in Los Angeles. Fearing a widespread health crisis, Californians moved broadly Friday to get in front of the spread of the coronavirus, shuttering schools that educate hundreds of thousands of students, urging the faithful to watch religious services online and postponing or scratching just about any event that could attract a big crowd.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP Photo

Unionized hospitality workers wait in line in a basement garage to apply for unemployment benefits at the Hospitality Training Academy Friday, March 13, 2020, in Los Angeles. Fearing a widespread health crisis, Californians moved broadly Friday to get in front of the spread of the coronavirus, shuttering schools that educate hundreds of thousands of students, urging the faithful to watch religious services online and postponing or scratching just about any event that could attract a big crowd.

New claims filed last week were nearly five times the number recorded during the peak of the Great Recession. In the week that ended March 28, 2009, about 665,000 new claims were filed. That was second only to the week that ended Oct. 2, 1982, when 695,000 first-time claims were filed.

“Most historical comparisons of this scale are inadequate,” said Daniel Zhao, an economist with Glassdoor. “The coronavirus outbreak is economically akin to a major hurricane occurring in every state around the country for weeks on end.”

The loss of that many jobs is expected to push unemployment to 5.5% — a level it last reached in 2o15 — but it’s likely to climb even further. Goldman Sachs has predicted that the jobless rate could approach 13% during the next few months.

“If the number of new claims is as high as predicted and if it remains high in coming weeks, unemployment will skyrocket,” the Joint Economic Committee of Congress said in a report ahead of Thursday’s data.

The collapse of the job market has been unprecedented in size and speed.

Adam Hill of Worcester, Mass., worked until recently as a graphic designer at a company that organizes trade shows.

“A couple of weeks before this happened, we had a [company] meeting where we heard about how we did the previous year, and revenue was up. Everyone was pretty excited for the next year,” he says.

“Then all of a sudden, this show canceled, and then another one and then another one. And within two weeks, I think, 155 shows had canceled. No shows, no money,” he says. “I guess I wasn’t too surprised when we got laid off.”

Hill says he expects to be called back to work when the economy recovers, but no one is sure when that will be.

In the meantime, the Senate has approved a $2 trillion economic relief package that broadly expands unemployment benefits, extending them to gig workers and freelancers. It includes more generous benefits and extend eligibility for benefits by 13 weeks. A House vote is expected by Friday.

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