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Over 22 Million File For Unemployment In 4 Weeks


The best we can say about the latest employment number from the Labor Department is that it is not the very worst number on record because the worst numbers in modern times came the previous two weeks. This was marginally less appalling, the number of Americans who filed for unemployment in the previous week.

NPR's Scott Horsley is following this. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's the number?

HORSLEY: 5.2 million - that's the number of people who filed for unemployment last week. And it is a jaw-dropping figure no matter how you slice it. It's another sign of the economic toll this pandemic is taking, both in the United States and around the world.

But as you say, there is a thin ray of sunshine in these dark economic clouds. And that is that it is down from the previous two weeks, which suggests the initial wave of coronavirus job cuts may have crested. Now, to be sure, it was a tidal wave, one way to think about it. Over the last four weeks, some 22 million Americans have lost their jobs. That's as many jobs as we added in the decade since the Great Recession - so 10 years worth of job gains wiped out in less than a month. But it does appear that that peak has come now. And just as we want to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, it appears we are beginning to slowly flatten the economic curve, as well.

INSKEEP: So we've effectively lost all of the jobs gained in the longest post-war economic expansion. This must affect people in every part of the economy.

HORSLEY: Yes, it's a broad array of industries that are being touched here. The color we get from state unemployment offices lags the headline numbers by about a week. So we haven't seen the full effect, but states are still reporting a lot of job cuts in bars and restaurants, for example. Maybe that's people who were actually laid off several weeks ago and are only now getting through the logjam to file their claims. Or it may reflect eating and drinking places that tried to hold on for a while doing takeout and then gave up.


HORSLEY: But we're also seeing job cuts in retail - no surprise there, obviously; lots of retailers have closed their doors - warehousing, transportation, manufacturing. And then, of course, there are ripple effects to all the businesses that supply those hard-hit industries - waste management, for example - if your store is closed, if your restaurant's closed, you don't need somebody emptying the dumpster. We're also seeing some cuts in education services, although not a lot yet. That's certainly something to watch for depending on how long this goes on.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Universities are already asking if they can reopen as normal in the fall, never mind this school year. Are state unemployment offices getting any better at handling millions of applications per week?

HORSLEY: You know, when you're talking about millions, it's certainly overwhelming. But the number is down. And that might give unemployment offices a bit of a chance to catch up on the backlog. Of course, we've been hearing for weeks about jammed telephone lines and trouble getting through to websites. This could offer some relief. We know that unemployment offices have been hiring additional people to handle the caseload. They've been reassigning workers from other parts the government. And of course, Congress has increased the work by making more people eligible for unemployment - gig workers, the self-employed who in the past could not collect. Now they can.

We do understand that in many states, they're only just now getting guidance from the federal government in how to apply those new rules. But also, we hear that the additional federal benefits of $600 a week are finally starting to go out this week. And so that should be some small comfort to the millions of people who've lost jobs during the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Scott, one mystery here - didn't the government pass this gigantic relief bill that was offering money to businesses to keep people on the payroll?

HORSLEY: And a lot of businesses have been taking advantage of that. Congress set aside $350 billion for that program, the so-called Paycheck Protection Program. That money is almost exhausted. The administration's now asking for another $250 billion to keep those loans coming, to keep those businesses afloat and perhaps keep some people on the payroll who would otherwise be adding to this unemployment toll.

INSKEEP: Wow, apparently it could be even worse. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.