The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Another 1.48 million workers are newly unemployed

This is the 14th straight week more than a million people have filed for jobless claims, since the pandemic began

Hundreds of people line up hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claim in Frankfort, Ky., this month. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

Austin Nunn has applied for 250 jobs since early April. The 25-year-old finally got his first callback this week.

An unemployed graphic designer in Kansas City, Mo., who has been moonlighting as an Instacart driver for spare cash, he’s found this bout of joblessness particularly challenging, far worse than another spell a couple years ago.

“I don’t know what people are looking for,” he said.

But the already dim job prospects have gotten worse in the last week or two, he said, recalling all the positions he’s applied for that have told him, “You’ll start when we reopen in a couple weeks.”

“Now those places probably aren’t going to reopen so they probably tossed out the applications,” he said.

The news Thursday that another 1.48 million people applied for unemployment for the first time last week — the 14th straight that more than 1 million people filed for unemployment — was yet another reminder of the magnitude of the economic crisis. For three weeks straight, the number has hovered around 1.5 million, pointing to the potential stubbornness of the recovery.

The labor market turmoil is connected to ongoing health concerns. This week has seen a surge of new novel coronavirus infections, particularly in Arizona, Texas, Florida and California, scuttling some plans for the reopenings — and rehirings — that many had hoped would help fill in the deep financial hole bored by the pandemic.

That is impacting current and prospective workers as they try to understand the rapidly shifting labor market.

“It is just deeply disturbing,” Heidi Shierholz, chief economist at the Department of Labor during the Obama administration, said of the unemployment figures. “I do think that people are getting hired back, but we are continuing to see an absolute hemorrhaging of jobs. Just record levels of people.”

There have been more than 47.3 million applications for unemployment benefits since March, and the recent pace has not eased.

Shierholz said that a sizable number of those layoffs were probably from businesses that had been holding out hope that they could weather the downturn. But without a robust recovery in sight, they might have finally accepted the inevitable and cut workers loose.

There appear to be more layoffs on the horizon.

In Texas, spiking cases in the Houston area have caused Apple to shutter seven stores there. At least 40 restaurants closed temporarily after employees tested positive, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In the Phoenix area, which has seen more than 13,000 new cases in the last week, dozens of restaurants also have shuttered after employees fell sick. The Gila River Hotels & Casinos closed its three locations again last week after a security guard at Lone Butte Casino died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

In Nevada, Nostalgia Street Rods, a hot rod museum in Las Vegas, said it was closing on Thursday again after a citywide spike in cases.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) slowed the state’s reopening efforts after a rise there, too. Bars, gyms, bowling alleys and amusement parks remain closed.

And there are more signs that the layoffs are creeping into white-collar industries that hadn’t been as affected initially. Macy’s announced Thursday that it would lay off 3,900 corporate employees and managers amid declining sales.

The unemployment numbers released Thursday were higher than analysts’ predictions.

Shierholz said the continued high numbers could be from workers whose claims were filed earlier in the pandemic but are just now being processed. She also said some claims are coming from businesses that had tried to hang on to workers but are realizing the process of reopening and recovery may be longer and more painful than they imagined. Some newly unemployed worked at companies that were not affected so much by the initial distancing requirements but are struggling now as consumer demand declines.

“Those different pressures are creating tons of layoffs,” she said.

Another 730,000 people applied last week for the supplemental pandemic unemployment assistance program created by Congress for self-employed and gig workers, bringing the total number of first-time claims to 2.2 million.

The total number of people claiming unemployment, including benefits for gig workers, was 30.5 million as of June 6.

There are signs that some states are still dealing with the backlogs that plagued unemployment systems early in the crisis — making the numbers an imperfect snapshot of the current picture.

Nunn, for example, the graphic designer from Kansas City, said he tried to apply for unemployment insurance between 20 and 30 times in April before giving up in failure, concluding that his time was better spent applying for jobs.

In Wisconsin, state officials have warned a backlog of unemployment claims could last until October. Kentucky’s state capital of Frankfort was flooded with laid-off workers who said they had not been paid since the beginning of the pandemic. A line of unemployed workers outside an Oklahoma Employment Security Commission office grew tense after authorities had to turn many of them away, with one official telling the workers they may have to start lining up for the day by 2 a.m.

Wendy Reid, 68, the owner and sole worker at a yarn and crafts store in Burnsville, N.C., said that her business had slowly begun to tick up in the last month, from about 10 percent of what it normally is to about 20 percent.

Reid, who has been doing her sales outside, said she had gotten comfortable with the idea of opening up her store to a few customers after Cooper made masks mandatory. But local efforts to disregard safety guidelines set her back.

“Within fifteen minutes of that mandate, the country sheriff posted on the sheriff’s Facebook page that he would not be enforcing it,” she said. The sheriff, Gary Banks, deleted the post but defended it in a follow-up post that said he believed the governor had overstepped his authority.

“They’re leaving the enforcement up to the business owner,” Reid said. “I’m a little old lady. Do I want a six-foot-six guy standing over me saying, ‘Blah blah blah’? I don’t want that energy. I don’t even want people to be mumbling and grumbling in my store, so I’m just not letting anyone in. It’s tough.”

There are concerns about more issues when the supplemental $600 unemployment bonus runs out at the end July. While some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the payments pose an incentive for some to remain unemployed, a study looking at data from 2013 to 2019 released this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago showed the opposite: that those collecting jobless benefits search for jobs more than twice as intensely as those who have exhausted their benefits.