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Jobless Claims Hit Record Highs Due to Coronavirus: Are More Layoffs Looming?

By Dan Caplinger - Mar 26, 2020 at 8:51AM

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We've never seen so many people need unemployment benefits at the same time.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of nearly everyone across the globe. Employers have told millions of workers to stay home, in many cases in response to orders from state and local governments for nonessential businesses to close their doors temporarily. That's creating a flood of people being out of work and needing to take advantage of the programs available to the unemployed.

Every week, the Labor Department announces the number of people making claims for unemployment benefits for the first time since losing their jobs. Today's number of 3,283,000 initial unemployment claims was by far the largest ever for the program, and the sudden jump will inevitably put pressure on the unemployment benefits system to ensure that so many people get the money they need. Below, we'll look in more detail at exactly what today's jobless-claim numbers are and what they mean.

What jobless claims are

If you lose your job and are covered by unemployment insurance, then you have the right to collect unemployment benefits from the government. The insurance aspect of unemployment benefits stems from the fact that your employer has to pay taxes each pay period based on the amount of pay you receive, with the proceeds going toward covering benefits to out-of-work employees. When you combine what the federal government and the applicable state government charge, the typical amount of unemployment tax that employers pay is 6% of the first $7,000 in wages per employee, or $420 per year.

Paper marked Unemployment Claim on a wood desk with pens and glasses nearby.

Image source: Getty Images.

When workers are laid off or are otherwise eligible for benefits, they can file a claim within a short period of time. The benefits aren't enough to replace what the workers got from their job. But the amounts -- which vary from state to state -- are designed to help with essential living expenses and to bridge the gap until the employees can find other work.

Just how big a jump did we see?

To put the 3.28 million number in context, the typical level of weekly jobless claims we'd seen in the month leading up to the latest figures was 232,500. There'd been a spike higher the previous week to 282,000. This week's jobless claims came in at nearly 12 times the previous week's level.

Just about everyone watching the economic data expected the jobless claims to soar from previous levels, but estimates of the exact number varied greatly. Some believed that as few as 1 million would need to file for unemployment, while a few others had projected as many as 4 million. In general, the 3.28 million figure was higher than the consensus forecast among economists.

Which states saw the biggest changes?

Different areas of the country saw varying effects on employment from the coronavirus outbreak. Pennsylvania saw the biggest jump in claims, rising by more than 363,000 from the previous week. Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas, and California were the next five hardest-hit states, and joining them with increases above the 100,000 job mark were Michigan, Washington, Minnesota, and Illinois.

Even in smaller states, the proportional increases were extraordinary. In New Hampshire, for instance, prior-week claims of 642 jumped to 21,878, a rise of 34 times. Elsewhere around the nation, New Mexico saw claims jump nearly 20 times to 17,187, and Louisiana's claim numbers rose from 2,255 the previous week to 72,620, a rise of 3,120%.

More to come?

The big question looming is whether this week will prove to be the big one in terms of newly unemployed people claiming benefits. If it's a one-week phenomenon, then it could provide some confidence about the potential scope of the problem. If the number of new claims stays at heightened levels for a while, then it will show that the size of the economic impact of the coronavirus could be far larger than many have thought until now.

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