Before COVID-19 came to these shores, no more than 700,000 Americans had ever filed for unemployment benefits in a single week. In the seven-day span that ended on March 21, about 3.3 million did. Economists expected last week to be similarly brutal, with their consensus estimate projecting that another 3.1 million in (seasonally adjusted) jobless claims.
The actual figure was 6.65 million.
As one would expect amid social distancing measures that have shuttered bars, restaurants, and sporting events throughout the nation, bartenders, wait staff, line cooks, and athletic coaches were among those workers most likely to be laid off, according to data from CareerBuilder. But Labor Department figures suggest that the recession is already sapping jobs from less directly impacted sectors, such as construction and retail. Job losses have been disproportionately concentrated among low-income and nonwhite workers, a development that is likely to exacerbate our society’s (already massive) race- and class-based inequities.
All states saw a sharp increase in their unemployment rolls, but the largest were recorded in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Given the extraordinary volume of claims inundating states’ unemployment insurance offices, it is unclear whether state-level variation solely reflects economic discrepancies. Which is to say: Since the metric here is the number of workers who got their unemployment claims approved, it is possible that states that have high levels of job losses, but sluggish unemployment insurance offices may be putting out artificially low numbers as their bureaucracies struggle to process applications.
Taken together, the job losses of the past three weeks imply a real-time unemployment rate of 10.1 percent, matching the highest level of joblessness America experienced during the Great Recession. Earlier this week, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis projected that unemployment could reach as high as 32.1 percent before the pandemic-induced recession is through. If so, then America is about to see levels of joblessness more than seven points higher than any it witnessed during the Great Depression.
Laid-off workers are eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits that will leave low-to-middle income laborers at least as well off as they were on the job, thanks to the $2 trillion stimulus package that Congress enacted last week. But that relief package did little to address the plight of workers who were planning to enter the labor market this spring, such as new college graduates, or for undocumented workers, among myriad other embattled constituencies. Meanwhile, the bill’s program for aiding small businesses is woefully underfunded.
Nevertheless, Congress decided last week to depart for a monthlong vacation, and will not be back in session until April 20.