33 million have sought U.S. unemployment aid nationwide since coronavirus hit, more than 400,000 in Colorado

WASHINGTON — Nearly 3.2 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as the business shutdowns caused by the viral outbreak deepened the worst U.S. economic catastrophe in decades.

Roughly 33.5 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces. That is the equivalent of one in five Americans who had been employed back in February, when the unemployment rate had reached a 50-year low of just 3.5%.

In Colorado, another 28,322 people filed initial claims last week, according to numbers provided to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s down from the 38,384 the state reported for the last full week in April, but still the fifth-highest total on record. All of the top seven weeks for claims in state history have come since March 8.

The national numbers do not reflect claims filed for the federally funded pandemic unemployment assistance program or PUA. In the first week since the state launched its system for applying for that program — open to self-employed people, gig workers and people directly impacted by COVID-19, among others — 40,906 people filed initial claims. That pushed the total for new unemployment claims filed in Colorado above 79,000 for the week ending April 25.

New PUA numbers are expected to be released by the state later today.  Even without them, more than 406,500 people have sought unemployment assistance in Colorado over the last seven weeks, a total that alone would push the state’s unemployment rate to nearly 13%.

Food service employees, retail workers and those with jobs in elective medical care and social service offices have been among the state’s hardest hit during the coronavirus pandemic. In the last week, the state has begun to slowly reopen the economy under the direction of Gov. Jared Polis and public health officials, bringing back some jobs in the personal services, medical and retail industries. There is still no telling when restaurants and bars will reopen to even limited dine-in service.

On Friday, the government will issue the April jobs report, and it’s likely to be the worst since modern record-keeping began after World War II. The unemployment rate is forecast to reach at least 16%, the highest rate since the Great Depression, and economists estimate that 21 million jobs were lost last month. If so, it would mean that nearly all the job growth in the 11 years since the Great Recession ended has vanished in a single month.

Even those stunning figures won’t fully capture the magnitude of the damage the coronavirus has inflicted on the job market. Many people who are still employed have had their hours reduced. Others have suffered pay cuts. Some who lost jobs in April and didn’t look for a new one in light of their bleak prospects won’t even be counted as unemployed. A broader measure — the proportion of adults with jobs — could hit a record low.

The official figures for jobless claims may also be under-counting layoffs. Surveys by academic economists and think tanks suggest that as many as 12 million workers who were laid off by mid-April did not file for unemployment benefits by then, either because they couldn’t navigate their state’s overwhelmed systems or they felt too discouraged to try.

As the economy slides further into what looks like a severe recession, economists are projecting that the gross domestic product — the broadest gauge of economic growth — is contracting in the current April-June quarter by a shocking 40% annual rate. As it does, more layoffs appear to be spreading beyond front-line industries like restaurants, hotels and retail stores.

GE Aviation, for example, has said it is cutting up to 13,000 jobs. Uber will shed 3,700 positions. MGM Resorts International has announced that the furloughs of more than 60,000 employees could turn into layoffs.

But the job cuts have hammered workers at restaurants, hotels and retail firms particularly hard. According to the payroll processor ADP, about half the total jobs in the hotel and restaurant industry — 8.6 million — disappeared in April, based on data from its corporate clients. A category that includes retail and shipping shed 3.4 million workers.

As businesses across the country have shut down and laid off tens of millions, the economy has sunk into a near-paralysis. Even as some businesses are beginning to reopen in certain states, factories, hotels, restaurants, resorts, sporting venues, movie theaters and many small businesses are still largely shuttered. Home sales are falling. Consumer confidence and spending are sinking.

The volume of layoffs exceeds anything Americans have ever suffered in such a brief period.

The difference between the 30 million-plus unemployment claims that have been filed in the past several weeks and the expected April job loss of slightly more than 20 million reflects differences in how the figures are compiled.

The government calculates job losses by surveying businesses and households. It’s a net figure that also counts the hiring that some companies, like Amazon and many grocery stores, have done. By contrast, the total jobless claims are a cumulative figure; they include applications for unemployment aid that began in mid-March.

In addition, the government conducts its surveys for the monthly jobs reports in the middle of each month. So layoffs from the final two weeks of April won’t show up in Friday’s jobs report. They will instead be included in the May jobs report to be released in early June.

After problems with state computer systems had slowed the distribution of federal benefits for many laid-off workers, all 50 states are now paying the $600 extra weekly benefit that the federal government included in a relief package enacted in late March. That represents a significant help to millions of laid-off workers, many of whom still remain anxious and uncertain.

Jamie Stewart is renting out a spare bedroom in her home to try to make ends meets after losing her job at a southwest Florida resort. Having applied for unemployment benefits in late March, she finally received her first payment of $1,200 this week. Stewart, a 37-year-old resident of Bonita Springs, works as a concierge in the off-season and as a shift manager and bartender in the resort’s restaurants.

After her layoff, she deferred her car payment for two months and cancelled non-necessities like Zoom, Pandora and Netflix. She recently signed up for food stamps, which cover about half her monthly grocery bill.

Florida began some limited reopening of its economy this week, including allowing restaurants to serve customers in outdoor seating. But Stewart’s resort hasn’t set a date to reopen its restaurants, and future reservations haven’t picked up enough for them to call her back to work.

“My mental health has deteriorated to a point that I don’t recognize myself anymore,” she said. “My eyes are swollen and bloodshot all the time now from regular moments of weakness that leave me completely inconsolable.

“It looks like I have aged 10 years since the lockdown started.”

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