By CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — For 20 straight weeks, the number of Americans who have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment insurance has topped one million.
This unprecedented streak of weekly jobless claims has shattered all historical records.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the previous record for weekly unemployment filings was 695,000 in 1982. In the last week of March, that was smashed by nearly tenfold as 6.9 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance in a single week.
Gary Burtless, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News that the U.S. has never seen anything like the current unemployment crisis historically, especially considering the speed with which the new filings exploded.
“It’s far more serious than anything we’ve ever experienced to my knowledge, in the suddenness of the rise in unemployment,” he said, noting how in February the nation had a historically low unemployment rate of 3.5%. “Nothing compares with the suddenness.”
According to most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate shot up to 11% in June — though economists warned this figure might not capture the full extent of layoffs that entrenched the country later in the month as many states were forced to rollback reopening plans amid rises in COVID-19 cases.
The magnitude of this crisis in terms of new weekly unemployment filings has also already dwarfed the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009, which saw a much more gradual increase in layoffs versus the sudden job losses seen now.
In an attempt to ease the burden on the unemployed, Congress expanded the amount of workers who could apply for unemployment insurance during the COVID-19 crisis to include freelancers, self-employed and other categories previously not included. Burtless said this may have contributed to the current, skyrocketing data.
Comparing the current crisis to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ previous worst period for weekly unemployment filings, during a recession in the early 1980s, also shows how this current situation is already in a completely different ballpark.
Burtless added that there is no data on weekly jobless claims from the Great Depression as the unemployment insurance program did not exist then, but it’s estimated that at its peak approximately a quarter of the workforce was unemployed and seeking a job.
The suffering of many Americans during the Great Depression was also heightened as a result of there not being any unemployment insurance relief, according to Burtless. While the current unemployment benefits program has been riddled with problems and many have reported long lags before receiving any aid, Burtless said the amount of funds being paid out is “historically generous.”
For the millions of workers pushed into unemployment by the crisis, the bolstered pandemic aid of an extra $600 a week proved a lifeline. That aid expired at the end of July, but the streak of elevated unemployment filings continues to roll in.
As of last week, some 17 million Americans were still receiving unemployment benefits. And as the weeks turned to months, Burtless said that further agony looms as many people who thought they were on temporary furlough will likely be permanently laid off.
“A lot of people did not think that they were permanently unemployed, they thought they were on furlough, they thought the job they had would reappear and it would come back, whether a month, three months or six months,” he said. “But I think now people are reassessing whether they will be recalled to their last job.”
Ultimately, full economic recovery remains contingent on a vaccine or effective treatment for the coronavirus, according to Burtless.
“The primary thing that has been driving the statistics is just the public health emergency, the fact that if you leave your home, if you go to work, if you go to shop, you face a higher risk of becoming infected than if you just stay at home,” he said. “And that is the driver of a weak economy, people aren’t shopping for things, people aren’t leaving their homes, they’re not as willing to go risk their lives by going to work.”
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