A record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, as restaurants, hotels, barber shops, gyms and more shut down in a nationwide effort to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Laid off workers say they waited hours on the phone to apply for help. Websites in several states, including New York and Oregon, crashed because so many people were trying to apply at once.
“The most terrifying part about this is this is likely just the beginning of the layoffs,” said Martha Gimbel, a labor economist at Schmidt Futures.
The nation’s unemployment rate was 3.5 percent in February, a half-century low, but that has likely risen already to 5.5 percent, according to calculations by Gimbel. The nation hasn’t seen that level of unemployment since 2015.
The Senate passed the largest aid package ever Wednesday in an effort to help struggling American workers, businesses and hospitals during this unprecedented economic contraction. The bill includes $1,200 checks for most Americans and additional money for laid off workers.
“We may well be in a recession,” said Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell in his first appearance on morning television on NBC’s “Today” show. “The first order of business is to get the virus under control and then resume economic activity.”
Despite the ominous news about laid off workers, the stock market rose Thursday with the Dow Jones industrial average gaining 400 points, or about 2 percent. Wall Street investors cheered the Senate’s massive government aid package. Investors are hopeful the federal cash for workers and companies will prevent the downturn from spiraling into a lengthy depression like the nation experienced in the 1930s.
Layoffs skyrocketed after President Trump declared that no more than 10 people should gather together at a time, effectively forcing restaurants and other public places to close. But many health experts say it is necessary to keep people home to slow the spread of the virus and prevent people from dying.
Both the scale of the layoffs and the speed at which they are happening are unprecedented. During the Great Recession, for example, the worst week for jobless claims was 665,000. Last week the nation saw five times that amount.
A lot of workers are not allowed to apply for unemployment benefits, meaning the true number of layoffs so far due to the coronavirus is likely far higher than 3.3 million. Self-employed workers, gig workers, undocumented workers, students, and people who worked fewer than six months last year are typically not eligible to apply for unemployment insurance in most states.
“I haven’t worked since March 13. I am not eligible for unemployment because I’m self-employed,” said Pam Massey, a hairdresser in Gig Harbor, Washington, about an hour south of Seattle. “I had to call my clients and cancel. What am I supposed to do?”
Massey is worried about paying her home mortgage. The salon owner also called her and said her rent is still due for her space at the salon, even though no one is getting a hair cut right now. Massey’s income has dropped to zero. Clients have been begging Massey to come to their homes to cut their hair, but at age 66, she felt the danger was too high.
The Senate’s coronavirus relief bill allows many more workers, including self employed workers like Massey, to apply for unemployment aid. The House is expected to pass the bill Friday and President Trump has indicated he will sign it quickly.
But there’s concern the money might not arrive fast enough. Many workers who have lost their jobs or had their hours severely cut back are worried about paying their April rent, car payment and health insurance costs.
“I worried about my mortgage. I’m trying to get ready for retirement. This is going to kill it,” said Massey.
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 Trump signs the relief bill into law, a substantial increase meant to tide workers over as they are forced to stay home.
“My biggest concern right now is speed. These people who filed for unemployment may not get their checks in time to pay rent on April 1,” said Gimbel, the labor economist.
Andrew Van Dam contributed to this story.