Spotlight: U.S. jobless claims soar to record high as COVID-19 outbreak ravages economy

Xinhua News Agency | Mar 27, 2020 at 7:56 AM

WASHINGTON, March 26 (Xinhua) -- Newly released data showed that the number of initial jobless claims in the United States surged by 3 million to reach a record 3.3 million last week, the latest testament to COVID-19's devastating impact on the U.S. economy.

In the week ending March 21, the number of people filing for U.S. unemployment benefits spiked by 3,001,000 to 3,283,000, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Thursday.

To put it into perspective, the staggering figure is several times more than the initial jobless claims of 695,000 during the deep recession in October 1982, and 570,000 during the financial crisis in December 2008.

Just two weeks earlier, before businesses were ordered to shut down or reduce services, weekly jobless claims stood at 211,000, near a five-decade low.

"We are officially declaring that the economy has fallen into a recession ... joining the rest of the world, and it is a deep plunge," Bank of America U.S. economist Michelle Meyer said.

"Jobs will be lost, wealth will be destroyed and confidence depressed," said Meyer, whose company expects the U.S. economy to contract by 12 percent in the second quarter, with a total of 3.5 million jobs lost.

Bloomberg economists said the deterioration in claims to date already implies an unemployment rate approaching 5.5 percent in April, and "the volume of applications overwhelming state administrative offices suggests additional million-plus weeks for initial claims may lie ahead."

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, estimates the COVID-10 outbreak will lead to about 7.5 million layoffs, mostly in the second quarter, with the unemployment rate climbing above 10 percent, from 3.5 percent in February.

The U.S. unemployment rate has been hovering near a historically low level, around 3.5 to 3.6 percent, since September last year, following a 10-year economic expansion that has created jobs for millions of Americans.

In just a few weeks, the spread of COVID-19 changed all that.

As the number of confirmed cases continues to spike, Americans are advised to reduce social gatherings, flight and hotel bookings are canceled, major sports events are delayed, and restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities, among others, are partially shut down, leading to a surge in layoffs.

"Nearly every state providing comments cited the COVID-19 virus impacts," the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said. "States continued to cite services industries broadly, particularly accommodation and food services."

"Additional industries heavily cited for the increases included the health care and social assistance, arts, entertainment and recreation, transportation and warehousing, and manufacturing industries," according to the report.

To cushion the economic impact of the outbreak, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a long-awaited 2-trillion-dollar relief package, which includes measures to stabilize the labor market, such as emergency loans for small businesses, business tax breaks, unemployment benefits expansion, and 1,000-dollar-plus direct payments for working Americans.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, a major accounting firm, said these measures "will not stop a recession from occurring." The goal is to blunt the blow to the economy "so that we have a foundation from which to recover," she said.

Despite the gloomy picture, some struck a more optimistic tone.

Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told CNBC on Wednesday that the U.S. economy could have a "very sharp" recession in the next two quarters, but followed by a "fairly quick rebound," if there's not too much damage done to the workforce and the businesses during the shutdown.

Lawrence Summers, U.S. treasury secretary for former President Bill Clinton and economic advisor to former President Barack Obama, meanwhile, stressed the urgency to contain the spread of the virus.

"No matter how much money the Federal Reserve commits, no matter how big a budget deficit we run, we cannot solve this problem until we contain the virus," Summers told PBS NewsHour.

The United States reported more than 85,000 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, surpassing China and Italy to become the country with most cases, according to a data tracking tool developed by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The death toll has exceeded 1,200.