Coronavirus drives 6.65 million to file unemployment benefits in US

With stores and offices closed nationwide, US job losses are soaring [PHOTO/AFP]

Another 6.65 million US workers filed for unemployment benefits last week, the most ever recorded, as the coronavirus forces businesses to shut down nationwide, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The number of first-time applications for jobless benefits for the week ended March 28 was double the amount registered in the previous week, which was revised up by 24,000 to 3.3 million — the previous record, according to the data.

“Nearly every state providing comments cited the COVID-19 virus,” the report said, noting a wider impact across more industries, especially hotels, but also manufacturing and retail.

The result far surpassed even the highest of estimates by economists, and reflected the growing damage to the US economy as the pandemic worsens and the growing death toll prompts more states to impose lockdowns.

Bustling cities have been turned into ghost towns, as COVID-19 restrictions have forced shops, restaurants and offices to close, leaving grocery stores and hospitals the lone epicenters of activity.

Some economists are predicting the worst job losses since World War II with the country already in a severe recession. In the same week of last year, only 211,000 people requested benefits for the first time.

Even analysts who had expected grim figures were stunned.

“No words for this,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics. “We’re hoping today’s reading will be the peak, but we can’t be sure,” he said in an analysis.

“In any event, total layoffs between the March and April payroll surveys look destined to reach perhaps 16 to 20 million, consistent with the unemployment rate leaping to 13 to 16 percent. In one month.”

The government last week approved a $2.2 trillion rescue package that includes a massive expansion and extension of unemployment benefits to cushion the blow for the millions of workers left without a paycheck.

The program also includes $349 billion in loans to businesses that will be forgiven if they are primarily used to pay workers, even those already dismissed. But even so, analysts warn the record low US unemployment rate is likely to surge into the double-digits as early as April.

The official employment report for March due out Friday will not show the full extent of the job losses because of the nature of how that report is compiled, looking at payroll data in the week including the 12th day of the month — which in March was before the most stringent lockdowns took effect.

Mickey Levy of Berenberg Capital Markets notes that the two-week total for initial claims is 9.9 million “which is almost twice the 5.8 million persons counted as unemployed in February, when the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent.”

The largest increases in first-time jobless claims last week were in Pennsylvania (+362,012), Ohio (+189,263), Massachusetts (+141,003), Texas (+139,250) and California (+128,727). No state reported a decline.

Pennsylvania cited “Layoffs in the transportation and warehousing, accommodation and food services, administrative, support, waste management and remediation services, and healthcare and social assistance industries.”

Source: AFP