The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

3 million Americans filed jobless claims last week, pushing eight-week total to 36.5 million

The White House and governors are debating different strategies for reopening local businesses, many of which have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic

A woman walk past closing signs in a store's window front in Niles, Ill., on May 13, 2020. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Roughly 3 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to unleash widespread economic havoc on an already depleted U.S. workforce.

The new applications for aid contribute to the total 36.5 million workers that have sought to receive weekly unemployment checks in the past eight weeks, according to the new federal data, erasing years of economic gains and threatening lasting devastation to the country that rivals even the Great Depression.

The flood of new claims could further inflame tensions between President Trump and public-health officials over how quickly to try to restart parts of the economy, with Trump on Thursday alleging without evidence that some Democrats are trying to slow the process to hurt him politically.

“The less successful we are in reopening, the better they are, maybe for an election,” the president said during an interview on Fox Business. “They would rather see our country fail — and you know what that means, because part of failure is death — than have me get elected.”

But many Democrats have said the White House is trying to rush states to reopen without an adequate plan to curtail the further spread of the coronavirus. House Democrats are set to vote Friday on a roughly $3 trillion spending bill that they say would aim to boost job creation and prevent more job losses, in part by helping state budgets and sending Americans more stimulus checks.

Once again, the federal unemployment data illustrates the wide-ranging economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, which has spared no state or industry. The Labor Department data said Connecticut witnessed a more than 700 percent increase in applications for jobless aid, after nearly 300,000 filed for benefits in the week ending May 9, the data shows. But Connecticut officials later said that figure was a mistake, and that the real figure was 29,846.

Even some of the states that have raced to reopen have been inundated with new claims. More than 241,000 people filed anew for unemployment in Georgia, for example, and more than 221,000 did so in Florida, both marking increases from the prior week, according to federal data.

“Make no mistake about it, the unemployment situation is dire and likely to continue that way until the economy is opened back up,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate. “Even then, significant challenges will remain.”

Hamrick said the “sickening” figures further dispel the notion of a “V-shaped recovery,” in which the country immediately, rapidly bounces from the economic turmoil wrought by the coronavirus.

The dour new numbers arrive a week after the Labor Department officially registered the country’s April unemployment rate at a historic 14.7 percent. Job losses in that period were roughly double those experienced during the financial crisis between 2007 and 2009, experts said.

Economists and labor experts said Thursday that additional job losses are on the horizon, further cleaving a country where just over half of eligible workers are employed — the lowest rate in U.S. history. Temporary furloughs could become permanent layoffs, said Brian Kench, dean of the College of Business at the University of New Haven, if the pandemic continues unabated for months.

“I think the longer this plays out, the more likely small, medium, then large businesses, last, will throw in the towel,” he said.

Some states in recent weeks have begun the fraught process of restarting local economic activity, despite indications from public-health officials that it may be too soon to lift restrictions seen as critical to arresting the spread of a pandemic that has already killed more than 83,000 Americans. On Wednesday, Republican legislators in Wisconsin convinced the state’s Supreme Court to strike down a recent extension of Gov. Tony Evers (D)’s stay-at-home order. Evers later blasted the decision, stressing it threatens to “throw our state into chaos.”

The slew of re-openings — in some cases cheered on by Trump — led the president again Thursday to predict a swift economic recovery, adding in his interview: “That’s all going to come back. That’s going to come back fast."

Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter, said there are some encouraging signs. Some companies have resumed posting jobs, for example, and people have started applying for them, on her company’s listing service. But the uptick in some private-sector positions still may cede to another economic crisis, as cities, states and other local governments — major employers in their own right — next face a cash crunch of their own.

“My fear is we could see 3 million more each week for quite a long time,” Pollak said. “We are now seeing reports out of state and local governments that the coronavirus has had such an effect on their revenues, because sales and state incomes tax receipts are so low, that they now don’t see any way of avoiding mass layoffs.”

On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell offered a dire warning about the U.S. economy, indicating further devastation is possible in the absence of more stimulus from Congress.

“Additional fiscal support could be costly but worth it, if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery,” Powell said in a speech hosted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “This trade-off is one for our elected representatives, who wield powers of taxation and spending.”

Heather Long and David Nakamura contributed to this report.