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US economy

US unemployment rises 6.6m in a week as coronavirus takes its toll

More than 6.6 million Americans lost their jobs last week, with 16 million jobs gone in the past three weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic brought the US economy to a standstill.

Millions of Americans filed for unemployment benefits again last week, the US labor department confirmed on Thursday, as shutdowns across the US led employers to lay off workers in nearly every corner of the market. Economists had expected 5.25 million Americans to file for unemployment benefits for the week ending 4 April.

In the previous two weeks the shutdowns cost close to 10 million people their jobs. Layoffs that started in the restaurant and leisure industries have now spread to include manufacturing, construction and even healthcare. Job losses are rising in every state and economists are predicting the unemployment rate will soon reach 15% or higher, levels unseen since before the second world war.

The largest increases were in California (up 871,992), New York (up 286,596), Michigan (up 176,329) and Florida (up 154,171).

The latest snapshot of economic devastation wrought by Covid-19 came as the virus itself continued its spread. More than 86,000 deaths have been reported around the world and the US has over 432,000 confirmed cases, the most of any nation.

But while the numbers are stark, economists cautioned it was too early to say what the long-term impact of Covid-19 will be on the economy.

“These figures don’t reflect a lack of demand,” said Dean Baker, visiting professor and senior economist at the University of Utah. During the recession in 2008, unemployment reached close to 10%.

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“That wasn’t in our control. This is literally in our control,” said Baker. “We are deliberately shutting down the economy.”

A sharp bounceback is possible, but will depend on government action and a coherent plan to safely reopen the economy.

weekly unemployment claims graph

In the meantime, there will probably be more sharp spikes in unemployment claims in the weeks ahead. Unemployment offices have been unable to cope with the huge volumes of claims made in recent weeks, with widespread reports of websites crashing and phone lines collapsing under the weight of calls. Those delays will filter through to the figures in the coming weeks.

Florida and Texas, which account for 15% of the nation’s payrolls, only moved to close non-essential businesses in the middle of last week, so the surge in claims in those states is likely to show up in the next report. States have moved to extend unemployment benefits to gig workers employed by Uber, Lyft and others, but not all of them have yet been able to make claims. Others have chosen to stop working for health reasons and have yet to apply for benefits.

Eric Anderson, 63, a grocery store worker in Mulberry, Florida, recently quit his job because he is in the high-risk coronavirus category because of his age and diabetes. Anderson said he felt uneasy about the crowds at his grocery store. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, refrained from issuing a stay-at-home order until 1 April. Anderson recently took two weeks unpaid leave and will likely extend it through the pandemic.

“Nobody was staying home, so I had to,” said Anderson. “I’m not getting paid, but as I told my manager I’d rather be broke than dead. The people in my area were ‘business as usual’.

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“What got to me was families, elderly people, babies, pregnant women, all came shopping. I worked through this past Friday getting more and more stressed, and when I went in last Saturday, every register was open, people lined up, self check-outs full, aisles full and I decided enough.”

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve said it expects the US economy to enter a recession this year and not recover until next year, in a worst-case scenario.


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