What sets this downturn apart is how rapidly the virus — and the economic pain — have spread. It remains a wide-open question whether this will become a long-lasting slump or a short-lived flash recession.
Economists say the jobless claims reported Thursday, which reflected workers seeking unemployment insurance last week, is the start of a massive spike in unemployment that could result in over 40 million Americans losing their jobs by mid-April.
Although no official figures exist yet, the unemployment rate has likely jumped to at least 5.5 percent, says economist Martha Gimbel of Schmidt Futures, a level not seen since 2015 and up from 3.5 percent in February.
“The most terrifying part about this is this is likely just the beginning of the layoffs,” Gimbel said.
That carnage is only likely to be partially ameliorated by a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that the Senate passed late Wednesday evening and the House is aiming to approve Friday.
The bill, which gives most Americans checks worth $1,200 or more and provides billions in low-cost loans to businesses, is likely to provide a lifeline to workers and companies facing devastation, but it won’t stop a severe recession nor be adequate to sustain workers if the coronavirus health crisis lasts more than a month or two.
“We all think of a recession as having an economic underpinning, but this has nothing to do with economics. This is literally about trying to stay away from people,” said Aparna Mathur, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Much of the nation has made the gut-wrenching choice to stop about half the economy and encourage most workers to stay home in an effort to save as many lives as possible.
LaTonua Bowens lost her job at Olive Garden in Shreveport, La., a week and a half ago. She received the call from her boss as she was coming out of Target empty-handed after an unsuccessful attempt to find toilet paper and sanitizer. Her boss told her to apply for unemployment insurance because no one knows how long it will last.
Stunned, Bowens drove to the Olive Garden parking lot where she commiserated with another laid-off cook, who had also come to the restaurant because she couldn’t believe the job losses either. They sat in their cars with their windows rolled down trying to understand how this boom-to-bust happened.
“It’s making me go into a depression,” Bowens said. “I’m worried if I’m going to still have a job. I’ve been at my job for 10 years.”
Bowens says she drove home and spent hours applying for Louisiana’s unemployment aid because the website was so slow. Newly unemployed workers across the country said in interviews it took hours, or even days, in some cases to apply last week because websites were so slow or down completely.
When she initially applied, Louisiana was still requiring people seeking jobless aid to prove they were actively searching for work, even in the pandemic. The state has now waived that requirement. Bowens and her husband, a repairman, are both out of work, but they have yet to receive any payments. Bowens just wants her old job back.
“I am not the sitting at home type person,” Bowens said. “I am not just a line cook. I do setup. Serving. Bartending. I can be the host or the ‘to go’ specialist. I have learned every job they have.”
The average unemployment benefit check is currently $385 a week, which is less than half the typical weekly paycheck in the United States. The amount is slated to rise an additional $600 a week once President Trump signs the relief bill into law, a substantial increase meant to tide workers over as they are forced to stay home.
But there is concern whether the money will arrive in time. Some states have waived the week-long waiting period before the first payment goes out, but others have not. Bowen’s husband takes nine pills a day for high blood pressure and other conditions. He is rationing them as the couple worries about stretching their finances.
Even in businesses that are considered “essential” and remain open, life has changed dramatically. Scott DeHenau, who runs an industrial packaging company called Pak-Rite in Wixom, Mich., says his firm is open because it does work for the medical and defense industries. But DeHenau almost wishes it was closed.
All employees now have their temperature tested on the way into the warehouse. He’s had lengthy discussions with each worker about whether they should take the health risk of coming to work. They now run two shifts and mandate that employees stand about 10 feet from each other. Between the shifts, they sanitize the whole facility — doorknobs, surfaces, bathrooms, tools.
Despite all this, business is down 40 percent from where it was this time last year. Some customers are canceling at the last minute. Supplies from Asia have dried up, and sometimes deliveries can’t be made from suppliers or to his customers as trucking companies don’t have enough healthy drivers or capacity.
“The covid-19 thing has really thrown a wrench in us sideways. We’re not one of those companies that has a lot of cash reserves,” DeHenau said. “We’re day by day here. It’s a lot of restless nights.”
DeHenau tried to apply for a Small Business Administration loan this week, but the site was so busy he only managed to get a login created before it froze. So far, he’s only had to lay off one of his 30 employees, but everyone is bracing for more if the situation doesn’t improve soon.
Michigan is one of 21 states that has told all nonessential employees to stay home. DeHenau’s business was founded in 1946 by his grandfather, and he doesn’t want to let the legacy down.
“The smaller the firm, the more damage this is going to cause,” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM, an audit firm that specializes in midsized companies. “What we’re hearing from smaller customers is for some of them it is too late.”
Brusuelas is also watching the commercial real estate market closely as a good indicator of whether the downturn is turning into something that will be difficult to bounce back from. The Cheesecake Factory has stopped paying rent on all its properties across the nation, and many business owners say they might do the same because government aid likely won’t arrive in time for April 1 payments. Commercial real estate stocks are down as much as 60 percent this year.
Another warning sign is companies starting to slash pay. Occidental Petroleum is cutting all U.S. worker salaries by 30 percent, and many smaller businesses say they are considering something similar, figuring it is better than layoffs. These pay reductions are another way this crisis is rapidly changing the economy’s trajectory after years of steady gains and likely making it harder for people to bounce right back to their prior spending levels, even if they kept their job.
Next week and the following week’s unemployment claims numbers are also likely to be telling. While 3.3 million new benefit applications last week was a shocking figure, it only represents a fraction of the number of people whose jobs have been cut in this flash recession so far.
Pam Massey, a hairdresser in Gig Harbor, Wash., hasn’t cut anyone’s hair since March 13. Her income has disappeared, but she has not been able to apply for her state’s unemployment benefits because she is technically self-employed. Gig workers, self-employed and people who have only worked for a few months typically aren’t eligible to get jobless aid from the government.
The Senate bill greatly expands who can receive benefits to include self-employed workers like Massey, but she has already lost half a month of income and she has to wait for the House to pass the bill and her state to implement the change.
“I worried about my mortgage. I’m trying to get ready for retirement. This is going to kill it,” Massey said. “But if we don’t stop the virus now, it will continue for God only knows how long. Let’s take the suffering upfront.”
Trump has debated trying to reopen parts of the country by Easter, but economists and health experts fear that could cause more loss of life and even end up prolonging the recession if coronavirus cases spike again.
In his first appearance on morning television Thursday, Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell told NBC’s “Today” show that the nation “may well be in a recession” already, but making the country safe has to be the top concern.
“The first order of business is to get the virus under control and then resume economic activity," he said.
Andrew Van Dam and Alyssa Fowers contributed to this report.