COVID-19

The number of new jobless claims looks bad. The reality’s almost certainly worse.

Mitchell Hartman Mar 26, 2020
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Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

The number of new jobless claims looks bad. The reality’s almost certainly worse.

Mitchell Hartman Mar 26, 2020
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Last week, first-time claims for state unemployment benefits rose by 70,000. That was steep, but it’s nothing compared to what’s coming.

Today, new numbers covering the week that ended Saturday, March 21 show 3,283,000 first-time claims — an increase of 3,001,000 from the previous week’s revised level. That’s the highest level in history, and nearly five times the highest level of claims seen during the Great Recession.

And layoffs and unemployment claims are likely to keep rolling in for weeks, or months, as the nation struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic. The data we’re getting from government agencies might not be capturing the full scope of the damage.

Lisa Tongel is a 49-year-old acupuncturist in Portland, Oregon. She’s been pretty much stuck at home since March 13, when she shut down her practice.

“I don’t have any income coming in at this point because my job is in-person and service-based,” Tongel said. “It’s not just me. My heart is breaking for everyone out there who has had to shutter their businesses.”

Millions of business owners and independent contractors like Tongel don’t have any work right now. 

But they’re not likely to show up in the government’s jobless claims report— at least not in the short run, said Heidi Shierholz, who served as the Labor Department’s chief economist in the Obama administration. 

“Our unemployment insurance system has huge holes in it,” Shierholz said.

For instance, people who work for themselves typically can’t claim benefits if their work dries up. Meanwhile, she said, the Labor Department’s monthly jobs report often undercounts unemployment when a recession hits. People are only counted as unemployed if they’re looking for work. 

“You get laid off, you’re not allowed to look for work unless you’re in essential services because things are totally shut down. And so many people when they are asked by the survey takers, ‘Are you looking for work?’ they will honestly say, ‘No.’ ” (:14)

Economic statistics aren’t likely to capture the full scope of the downturn right now, according to James McCann, senior global economist at Aberdeen Standard Investments. But he said it isn’t hard to see the broad outlines.

“How sudden this decline has been, and how dramatic it’s been, really what we’re seeing through March is an economy go from relative good health to wide-scale contraction,” McCann said.

At this point, it’s anybody’s guess how much further the economy will fall. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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