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Dark Days: A Hard Look At National Unemployment

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Source: Department of Labor unemployment insurance weekly claims report March 26, 2020. (Credit: Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR)

More than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week as the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the country, according to new numbers released today by the Department of Labor.

That total — 3.28 million —is well above the levels seen during the darkest days of the Great Recession, and forecasters warn that the worst isn't over yet.

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NOTE: Gov. Gavin Newsom said in California alone more than 1 million residents have filed for unemployment benefits this month >>

And a reminder: Top health officials advise that the only way to slow the spread of COVID-19 — which has no vaccine and kills at a higher rate than the seasonal flu — is to self-isolate when sick and to strictly limit people from leaving their homes unless they're in an essential job or running an errand decined as essential.

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.

The hotel industry alone as 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 job losses haven't been reflected in data released so far by the federal government, but the weekly report by the Labor Department on employment claims Thursday morning is expected to show an unprecedented surge in people seeking benefits.


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

The projected number is nearly five times as many initial claims as were recorded during the peak of the Great Recession. In the week ended March 28, 2009, about 665,000 new claims were filed. That was second only to the week ended Oct. 2, 1982, when 695,000 first-time claims were filed. The Labor Department's records go back to 1967. The EPI report says:

"This will dwarf every other week in history."

The loss of that many jobs would push unemployment to 5.5% — a level it last reached in 2015 — 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," according to a report from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.


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, Congress is set to approve a $2 trillion economic rescue package that broadly expands unemployment benefits, extending them to gig workers and freelancers. It would also include more generous benefits and extend eligibility for benefits by 13 weeks.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit



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