Unemployment claims soared to 3.3 million last week, most in history

Us Health Virus
A woman takes a picture of a sign in front of the closed Department of Labor on March 25, 2020 in New York. - Wall Street stocks jumped early Wednesday as markets awaited a vote on a $2 trillion package agreed by congressional leaders to boost the US economy ravaged by the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

A record number of Americans filed for their first week of unemployment benefits last week, as businesses shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Initial jobless claims soared to a seasonally adjusted 3.28 million in the week ended March 21, according to the Department of Labor.

That is the highest number of initial jobless claims in history, since the Department of Labor started tracking the data in 1967. The previous high was 695,000 claims filed in the week ending October 2, 1982.

Last week’s jump marked a massive increase from a revised 282,000 claims in the prior week. Prior to the pandemic, initial claims had been hovering in the low 200,000s each week, reflecting a strong job market.

But in the last couple weeks, the coronavirus outbreak has forced many businesses to suddenly shut down as the country tries to slow the spreading virus. For many businesses that also means laying off workers, at least temporarily.

That is the key difference between the coronavirus shock compared with past periods of economic distress: it is sudden and impacts virtually every industry and business model around.

Economists now expect the US economy to fall into a recession in the second quarter, before staging a comeback later in the year after the spread of the virus slows.

Meanwhile, state labor departments across the country are have struggled to deal with the sudden influx in claims for unemployment benefits. The New York Labor Department, for example, has added server capacity and hired more than 65 additional staff to handle all the claims that are suddenly pouring in. And last week, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity said it planned to hire 100 extra staff to help answer calls and walk people through the application process.

This is a developing story. It will be updated.