WASHINGTON—Nearly 3.2 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as the business shutdowns caused by the viral outbreak deepened the worst U.S. economic catastrophe in decades.
Roughly 33.5 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces. That is the equivalent of one in five Americans who had been employed back in February, when the unemployment rate had reached a 50-year low of just 3.5%.
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On Friday, the government will issue the April jobs report, and it’s likely to be the worst since modern record-keeping began after World War II. The unemployment rate is forecast to reach at least 16%, the highest rate since the Great Depression, and economists estimate that 21 million jobs were lost last month. If so, it would mean that nearly all the job growth in the 11 years since the Great Recession ended has vanished in a single month.
Even those stunning figures won’t fully capture the magnitude of the damage the coronavirus has inflicted on the job market. Many people who are still employed have had their hours reduced. Others have suffered pay cuts. Some who lost jobs in April and didn’t look for a new one in light of their bleak prospects won’t even be counted as unemployed. A broader measure—the proportion of adults with jobs—could hit a record low.
The official figures for jobless claims may also be under-counting layoffs. Surveys by academic economists and think tanks suggest that as many as 12 million workers who were laid off by mid-April did not file for unemployment benefits by then, either because they couldn’t navigate their state’s overwhelmed systems or they felt too discouraged to try.
As the economy slides further into what looks like a severe recession, economists are projecting that the gross domestic product—the broadest gauge of economic growth—is contracting in the current April-June quarter by a shocking 40% annual rate. As it does, more layoffs appear to be spreading beyond front-line industries like restaurants, hotels and retail stores.
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