US weekly jobless claims surge to record 3.28 million as coronavirus spurs mass layoffs

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to a record of more than three million last week as strict measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic ground the country to a sudden halt, unleashing a wave of layoffs that likely brought an end to the longest employment boom in US history.

The weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday (March 26) offered the clearest evidence yet of the coronavirus’ devastating impact on the economy, which has forced the Federal Reserve to take extraordinary steps and the US Congress to assemble a record US$2 trillion (S$2.9 trillion) stimulus package.

The jobless blowout was announced shortly after Federal Reserve chairman said on NBC’s Today Show that the US “may well be in recession” but progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus will dictate when the economy can fully reopen. His remarks were an unusual acknowledgement by a Fed chair that the economy may be contracting even before data confirms it.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose 3,001,000 to a seasonally adjusted 3.28 million in the week ending March 21, eclipsing the previous record of 695,000 set in 1982, the Labour Department said.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would rise to 1 million, though estimates were as high as 4 million.

The Labour Department attributed the surge to Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

“During the week ending March 21, the increase in initial claims are due to the impacts of the Covid-19 virus,” the department said. “States continued to cite services industries broadly, particularly accommodation and food service. Additional industries heavily cited for the increases included the healthcare and social assistance, arts, entertainment and recreation, transportation and warehousing, and manufacturing industries.”

Governors in at least 18 states, accounting for nearly half the country’s population, have ordered residents to stay mostly indoors. “Non-essential” businesses have also been ordered closed. According to economists, a fifth of the workforce is on some form of lockdown.

Last week’s claims data likely will have no impact on March’s employment report as it falls outside the period during which the government surveyed employers for non-farm payrolls, which was the week to March 14. Economists, however, say the rush for benefits in that survey week suggests that payrolls declined this month, which would end nearly 9½ years of job growth.

Mr Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said: “There are numerous reports of laid-off workers unable to file for unemployment insurance because so many people are trying to file at the same time. Millions of job losses are likely in coming weeks.”

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