Pandemic-Related Job Losses Top 38 Million as Pace Continues to Slacken

May 21, 2020 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Capitol seen from the grounds of the U.S. Labor Dept. (photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits in the nine weeks since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic reached 38.6 million last week, just as states across the nation began to take decisive steps to reopen their economies and reverse the trend.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that 2.4 million filed for unemployment benefits last week, a sign that layoffs were continuing despite local authorities allowing some business to resume in their communities.

An additional 1.2 million people applied for unemployment last week under a federal program that makes self-employed, contractors and gig workers eligible for the first time.

But those figures aren’t adjusted for seasonal variations, so the government doesn’t include them in the overall number of applications.

Thursday’s report inspired a sharp response from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who used it to advance her criticism of Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who are resisting doing another coronavirus relief package.

“Last week, the House passed The Heroes Act: honoring our heroic frontline workers with robust funding for state, local, tribal and territorial entities; funding a science-based path to safely opening the economy with testing, tracing, treatment and isolation; and putting more money in the pockets of workers including with vastly strengthened unemployment insurance,” Pelosi said.

“Instead of telling laid-off workers to pause, Leader McConnell and the Senate GOP need to come to the negotiating table to help deliver the relief to protect lives and livelihoods,” she said.

Later on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said during a virtual event sponsored by The Hill that there is a “strong likelihood” that another coronavirus relief bill will be needed as more states start to reopen and the economy struggles to stabilize.

“We’re going to carefully review the next few weeks,” Mnuchin said in an interview with The Hill’s Bob Cusack. “I think there is a strong likelihood we will need another bill, but we just have $3 trillion we’re pumping into the economy.”

The good news in Thursday’s report — if there is good news when people are struggling — is that the number of weekly applications has declined for seven straight weeks.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said earlier this week that the U.S. unemployment rate could peak in May or June at 20% to 25% — a level unseen since the depths of the Great Depression.

As of April, unemployment stood at 14.7%, a figure also unmatched since the 1930s. And the true rate was even higher, because millions of Americans weren’t officially counted as unemployed since they weren’t looking for a new job, presumably because nearly everything was shut down.

Across the U.S., some companies have begun to rehire their laid-off employees as states have eased restrictions on movement and commerce. On Monday, more than 130,000 workers at the three major American automakers, plus Toyota and Honda, returned to their factories for the first time in two months.

But major employers continue to cut jobs. Uber said this week that it will lay off 3,000 more employees because demand for rides has plummeted. Digital publishers Vice, Quartz and BuzzFeed, magazine giant Conde Nast and the owner of The Economist magazine announced job cuts last week.

On Thursday, the Atlantic, the public affairs and cultural magazine and publisher that dates to 1857 joined them, announcing that it will lay off 68 employees as the coronavirus crisis has diminished their events business.

In a memo to staff, chairman David Bradley also announced pay cuts for executives and a general pay freeze for the rest of the year.

To those losing their jobs, he said, “I want to tell our departing colleagues how deeply sorry I am. If we saw any prospect that your jobs would return in a reset ​Atlantic,​ we would have found another way forward.”

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