By Jorge A. Bañales
Washington, Apr 16 (efe-epa).- More than 5.2 million people sought unemployment benefits last week in the United States amid nationwide lockdowns aimed at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus, bringing the total number of initial jobless claims filed over the previous four weeks to over 22 million, the Labor Department said Thursday.
These latest figures come at a time when a political battle is brewing over when and how to reopen the world’s largest economy.
The number of people filing initial unemployment-insurance claims (a proxy for layoffs) in the week ending April 11 was estimated at 5,245,000, the third-highest figure since records began to be kept, yet still lower than the 6,615,000 initial claims filed during the previous week.
A record total of 6.9 million initial claims were filed in the week ending March 28 and 3.3 million in the week ending March 21 as states across the US ordered non-essential businesses to suspend their operations and imposed stay-at-home measures in a bid to encourage social distancing and contain the spread of Covid-19.
Prior to the pandemic, the previous mark for US initial claims was 695,000, set in October 1982.
The four-week moving average for initial jobless claims rose last week to a record high of 5,508,500, an increase of 1.24 million from the previous week’s revised average and a clear sign that the economic stoppages have extended far beyond the hotel, tourism, restaurant and retail sectors, which were hardest hit at the start of the nationwide shutdowns.
The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment (also known as continued claims and reported with a one-week lag) during the week ending April 4 rose to a record 11.98 million, an increase of 4.5 million from the previous week’s revised figure, the department said.
The insured unemployment figure is an indicator that tracks people who have already filed an initial claim and experienced at least one week of unemployment before filing a continued claim.
The jobless claims figures suggest the US’s headline unemployment rate will soar to 17 percent, according to private-sector economists, well above the highest rate during the 2008-2009 economic crisis (which peaked at 10 percent in October 2009).
The US jobless rate rose from 3.5 percent in February to 4.4 percent in March, but experts say that indicator will skyrocket in April as the full effect of the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns are reflected in the official statistics.
The economic carnage has been swift, with all of the job gains since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009 (21.5 million) being wiped out in just a month.
Even if some economic activities are resumed shortly, the Washington DC-based National Association for Business Economics estimates that the unemployment rate will remain above 10 percent until the end of 2020 and exact a heavy toll on consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity.
Weekly jobless claims in the months leading up to the pandemic had sunk to levels not seen in around a half century (totaling just over 200,000 in the week ending March 7), while continued claims amounted to just 1.7 million less than a month and a half ago.
US President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans are calling for a resumption of economic activities and argue that a prolonged shutdown could cause more long-term damage than the epidemic itself.
State governors, meanwhile, are weighing when and how to get the economy moving again while continuing to protect the public from the coronavirus, which in the US is estimated to have infected more than 650,000 people and is blamed for more than 33,000 deaths.
Democrats in Congress, for their part, are seeking more financial relief for workers, including undocumented migrants.
The Labor Department’s latest report also provided state-by-state initial claims data for the week ending April 4, noting that the largest increases from the previous week occurred in Georgia (up 256,312), Michigan (up 84,219), Arizona (up 43,488), Texas (up 38,982) and Virginia (up 34,872).
The largest decreases occurred in California (down 139,511 from the week ending March 28), Pennsylvania (down 127,037), Florida (down 58,599), Ohio (down 48,097) and Massachusetts (down 41,776).
Trump signed into law an initial $2 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March in response to the coronavirus crisis and which included direct payments to individuals, a boost to unemployment benefits and hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to businesses, states and municipalities.