A record 3.3 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. What does that look like?

Janet Nguyen Mar 26, 2020
mdphoto16/Getty Images

A record 3.3 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. What does that look like?

Janet Nguyen Mar 26, 2020
mdphoto16/Getty Images

Almost 3.3 million Americans filed unemployment claims in the past week, the largest number on record.

That’s an increase of roughly 3 million since the week ending March 14, when 282,000 people filed claims. In the last five years, claims have averaged about 250,000 a week.

As the COVID-19 crisis shuts down businesses across the country, the Senate has agreed to a nearly $2 trillion economic relief package that will include loans for companies, along with direct checks and expanded unemployment benefits for Americans. 

Here’s a closer look at the data released by the Labor Department:

*Figures have been seasonally adjusted

The highest number on record had previously been during a week in October 1982, when the number of unemployment claims totaled 695,000. During that period, the U.S. had entered a recession, with unemployment reaching almost 11%.

At the height of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate stood at 10%. Unemployment claims peaked then in March 2009 with 665,000 unemployment claims.

This time around, James Bullard — president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis — told Bloomberg the unemployment rate could hit 30%.

And the data we’re getting right from government agencies might not even capture the full scope of the damage.

*Figures have not been seasonally adjusted. March 21 claims are “advance” claims, which are reported by the state liable for paying the unemployment compensation. Meanwhile, previous weeks’ reported claims reflect claimants by state of residence. 

Pennsylvania experienced the highest number of layoffs, at more than 378,900. For the week ending March 14, the state had more than 3,000 layoffs in accommodation and food services, transportation and warehousing, and educational service industries, according to the Labor Department report.

In California, for that same week, there were more than 14,000 layoffs in the service industry. The state is under strict lockdown, with Gov. Gavin Newsom ordering all 40 million residents to stay at home unless for essential services.

Other states seeing a high number of unemployment claims include Massachusetts, which had nearly 148,000 people file, and New York, where more than 80,000 did. New York, the U.S. epicenter of the spread of the novel coronavirus, has confirmed at least 5,100 cases and accounts for more than half of the country’s known cases.

*Calculations based on the rate of increase between advance claims for week ending March 21, and week ending March 14. Figures have not been seasonally adjusted.

The percentage increase in unemployment claims skyrocketed across the U.S., with New Hampshire topping the list. The state had more than 21,800 file unemployment claims, up from 642 for the week ending March 14.

“Many of the largest percentage increases that were seen in this first major spike in new claims were in a number of states where small and mid-sized businesses might be seen having a larger footprint,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate, in an emailed statement.

Hamrick added companies that lack scale tend to be mom-and-pop businesses, which may operate with thinner margins and less cash in the bank. In response to the crisis, they have to part with workers quickly.

Correction (March 26, 2020): A previous version of this story misstated the figure for unemployment claims in October of 1982. The text has been corrected.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

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India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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