by Ken Bredemeier
WASHINGTON – The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, with another 5.2 million workers claiming unemployment compensation last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
The new figure pushed the four-week total to more than 22 million, with millions more expected to file for jobless assistance in the coming weeks as the full impact of business closures takes effect.
It is a level of job loss that the United States has not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Some companies laid off workers quickly in the past month, while others pledged to keep paying their employees for several weeks, even if they had little work for them to do. But now, more companies with white-collar workers are furloughing employees, as the depth of the country’s economic turmoil becomes apparent.
Some economists say the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, shrunk by 10.8% in the first three months of the year, its steepest plunge since World War II.
The newest weekly total for jobless assistance claims is smaller than the last two weeks, when more than 6 million people applied for help. That possibly suggests that the downturn has stabilized to a degree.
But what is unknown is how long businesses will remain shut or operating only on a curtailed basis, leading to weeks of heightened layoffs. Millions of people could be out of work through the end of 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing to reopen parts of the country to business again by May 1, especially in states where there has been a relatively small number of coronavirus cases.
But executives of some of the country’s biggest corporations warned him Wednesday that more coronavirus testing needs to be done before workers return to their jobs.
The amounts paid to the jobless in the U.S. vary widely among the 50 states, but often it amounts to not quite half of what a worker was paid before being laid off.
However, in the current downturn, Trump signed legislation as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package that is boosting unemployment assistance by $600 a week for the next four months.
With federal authorities recommending that Americans maintain at least a two-meter physical distance from other people through the end of April, businesses have been forced to curtail work or shutter operations and lay off workers.
The rapid pace of layoffs is unprecedented in recent U.S. history, although the extent of the economic damage is not precisely known. It took two years during the Great Recession in the two-year period between 2007 and 2009 for 8.6 million people to lose their jobs.
Despite the vast number of layoffs, more than an eighth of the U.S. labor force, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is optimistic that U.S. businesses could be “open for business” sometime in May.
“I think as soon as the president feels comfortable with the medical issues, we are making everything necessary that American companies and American workers can be open for business, and that they have the liquidity they need to operate their business in the interim,” Mnuchin told the CNBC network last week.
Numerous supporters of Trump have been pushing him to reopen the U.S. economy.
On Wednesday, hundreds of workers in the Midwestern city and state of Lansing, Michigan, protested Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, among the stiffest in the 42 states where governors have ordered residents to leave home only for essential trips.
The U.S. unemployment rate in March was 4.4%, but that figure was mostly derived from employment surveys in the early part of the month before most of the layoffs occurred. The survey for April covering the current layoffs will not be released until early May.
The early April employment report said the U.S. economy shed 701,000 jobs in March. By comparison, 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008 in the steep recession more than a decade ago, and the unemployment rate topped out at 10.2% in October 2009.
Some U.S. economists are predicting that 25 million to 40 million workers out of the U.S. labor force of nearly 165 million could be laid off by July.
The wave of claims by the newly unemployed has overwhelmed some state agencies that handle the paperwork. Jobless claim websites in some states, including New York and Oregon, have crashed.
Retail stores, restaurants, gyms and the travel industry have been especially affected by the coronavirus, but layoffs are also increasing in manufacturing, warehousing, transportation and some white-collar professions.
An estimated 190,000 stores have closed, about half of the country’s retail space. Major retailers Macy’s, Kohl’s and Gap have collectively laid off 290,000 workers. Other retailers have furloughed thousands more.
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Photo “Unemployment Insurance Claims Office” by Bytemarks. CC BY 2.0.