At the beginning of March, the number of new unemployment claims for the week actually fell to 216,000 as economists collectively breathed a sigh of relief that there appeared to be no surge in unemployment related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next week, the nation saw over 6.6 million claims. That was also the start of 13 straight weeks of over 1 million applications for unemployment benefits.
Make that 14. On Thursday the latest figures were released, showing 1.48 million people filed for initial unemployment benefits. Not only is that a wince-inducing number, it’s also higher than the 1.35 million that had been predicted. There are some areas of the economy that show some signs of recovery, but those are rare. Despite the sacrifice of lives and health to “reopening,” employment appears to be trudging down a long, dark slope. Even a million claims is a sign of an extraordinarily unhealthy economy, and 1.48 million is just plain awful.
To understand just how bad these numbers are, compare with the Great Recession, where the peak week saw 695,000 new claims. When a chart comparing that recession with this one first appeared in late March, it came loaded with warnings that it wasn’t fair to make the comparison, because the 2008-2009 event involved an increase of claims over a period of several months, and what was seen at the start of the pandemic was only a momentary spike.
That was then. What’s obvious now is that this event is both much more impactful than the Great Recession, and it’s not just one bad week. It’s one horrific week after another. The number this week would be a record—were it not numerous times it was beaten in the last 14 weeks. In the worst week at the end of March, unemployment claims hit 6.6 million. That may make “just” 1.48 million seem less than catastrophic. It’s not.
Right now, the real impact of these lost jobs is being softened—slightly—by extended unemployment payments. However, those emergency benefits expire at the end of July. Democrats in the House have already passed a bill that would extend those benefits and provide a second stimulus check. That bill would also protect Americans against the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment, provide funding for local and tribal healthcare, and expand testing and case tracing to bring the pandemic under control. That bill passed he House in May. Republicans in the Senate have yet to take up the bill.