US weekly jobless claims at record 6.6m

WASHINGTON • The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits last week shot to a record high for a second week in a row – topping six million – as more jurisdictions enforced stay-at-home measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, which economists say has pushed the United States economy into recession.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose to 6.65 million in the latest week from an unrevised 3.3 million the previous week, the US Labour Department said yesterday.

The figures far exceeded the median estimate of 3.5 million in a Reuters survey of economists.

The government’s weekly report, the most timely data on the economy’s health, offered the clearest evidence yet that the longest employment boom in US history probably ended last month.

More than 80 per cent of Americans are under some form of lockdown, up from less than 50 per cent a couple of weeks ago, leaving state employment offices overwhelmed by an avalanche of applications.

The outbreak has spurred an unprecedented surge in Americans seeking government assistance. They have already outstripped applications for unemployment benefits that peaked at 665,000 during the recession between 2007 and 2009, during which 8.7 million jobs were lost.

Economists say the country should brace itself for jobless claims to continue escalating, citing generous provisions of a historic US$2.2 trillion (S$3.2 trillion) fiscal package signed by President Donald Trump last Friday as well as the federal government’s easing of requirements for workers to seek benefits.

Self-employed and gig workers who were previously unable to claim unemployment benefits are now eligible. In addition, the unemployed will receive up to US$600 a week for up to four months, which is equivalent to US$15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek.

By comparison, the government-mandated minimum wage is about US$7.25 an hour and the average jobless benefits payment was roughly US$385 a person per month at the start of this year.

Last week’s claims data has no bearing on the closely watched employment report for last month which is scheduled for release today. For the latter, the government surveyed businesses and households in the middle of the month, when just a handful of states were enforcing movement restrictions.

It is, however, a preview of the carnage that awaits. Retailers, including Macy’s, Kohl’s Corp and Gap, said on Monday that they would furlough tens of thousands of employees, as they prepare to keep stores shut for longer.

“A rough look at the most affected industries suggests a potential payroll job loss of over 16 million jobs,” said JPMorgan Funds chief global strategist David Kelly in New York. “The loss would be enough to boost the unemployment rate from roughly 3.5 per cent to 12.5 per cent, which would be the highest rate since the Great Depression.”


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