Coronavirus-triggered layoffs in US hit nearly 39 million

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits in the two months since the coronavirus took hold in the U.S. has swelled to nearly 39 million, the government reported Thursday, even as states from coast to coast gradually reopen their economies and let people go back to work.

More than 2.4 million people filed for jobless aid last week in the latest wave of layoffs from the outbreak that has triggered nationwide business shutdowns and brought the economy to its knees, the Labor Department said.

That brings the running total to a staggering 38.6 million, a job-market collapse unprecedented in its speed.

Federal labor officials reported another 38,328 claims for unemployment insurance in Massachusetts last week, bringing the state’s nine-week total to about 864,000.

The number of weekly applications has slowed for seven straight weeks. Yet the figures remain breathtakingly high — 10 times higher than normal before the crisis struck.

And the continuing rise shows that even though all states have begun reopening over the past three weeks, the job market has yet to snap back, and the outbreak is still doing damage to businesses and destroying livelihoods.

“While the steady decline in claims is good news, the labor market is still in terrible shape,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said over the weekend 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 anyway.

An additional 1.2 million people applied for unemployment last week under a federal program that makes self-employed, contractor 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.

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