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Miguel Diaz, who works for the City of Hialeah, hands out unemployment applications to people in their vehicles

Miguel Diaz, who works for the City of Hialeah, hands out unemployment applications to people in their vehicles in front of the John F. Kennedy Library on April 8, 2020 in Hialeah, Florida. The city is distributing the printed unemployment forms to residents as people continue to have issues with access to the state of Florida's unemployment website in the midst of widespread layoffs due to businesses closing during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

'Staggering': Unemployment Claims Climb to 22 Million as US Remains Epicenter of Global Pandemic

"And that's just the beginning. These numbers only count the people who qualify for unemployment."

Jessica Corbett

Roughly 22 million Americans have filed jobless claims since mid-March as the United States has become the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic, with over 30% of the world's more than two million confirmed cases.

"Mass unemployment is a policy choice. We need my Paycheck Guarantee Act to ensure all workers get their paycheck during this crisis."
—Rep. Pramila Jayapal

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced Thursday that over 5.2 million people filed for unemployment insurance (UI) during the week that ended April 11, bringing the seasonally adjusted four-week total to about 22 million.

Although the new DOL report (pdf) featured a lower weekly figure than last week, the broader conditions resulting from virus-related shutdowns continued to alarm economists and elicit comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"All told, roughly nearly 12 million people are now receiving unemployment checks, roughly matching the peak reached in January 2010, shortly after the Great Recession officially ended," the Associated Press reported Thursday.

"Some economists say the unemployment rate could reach as high as 20% in April, which would be the highest rate since the Great Depression of the 1930s," the AP noted. "By comparison, unemployment never topped 10% during the Great Recession."

Using unadjusted rather than seasonally adjusted DOL figures, Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) pointed out that "the 20.1 million jobless claims in the last four weeks are more than five times the worst four-week stretch of the Great Recession."

Shierholz, a senior economist and director of policy at EPI, added in her statement:

It is important to note that the extraordinary UI claims of the last month don't include people who aren't eligible for regular UI but are nevertheless out of work due to the virus—people like independent contractors, those who had to quit work to care for a child whose school closed, and many others.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) made a similar point while responding to the DOL announcement on Twitter. "It's staggering," he said of the 22 million claims, "and many are still having trouble filing for unemployment insurance, meaning the true number is even higher."

The youth-led Sunrise Movement also recognized the DOL data as incomplete and reiterated a growing demand that the federal government pursue a #PeoplesBailout rather than just bailing out corporations and executives affected by outbreak:

"Mass unemployment is a policy choice," Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) declared in response to the DOL report. "We need my Paycheck Guarantee Act to ensure all workers get their paycheck during this crisis."

Jayapal's proposal, introduced last week, has the support of labor unions and small business advocates. The measure would allow companies nationwide to fully cover their employees' salaries of up to $100,000 annually, following the lead of similar schemes in other countries around the world.

The United States has long faced ridicule for being the world's only industrialized nation that doesn't have universal healthcare but criticism of the inadequate, for-profit U.S. system has ramped up as the coronavirus has ravaged the country, killing at least 31,000 people. The global death toll for COVID-19 is over 139,000.

EPI's Ben Zipperer and Josh Bivens on Thursday estimated that 9.2 million U.S. workers have likely lost their employer-provided health insurance in the past four weeks and urged the federal government to "fund an expansion of Medicare and Medicaid to all those suffering job losses during the pandemic period."

Noting the new DOL data and that about half of Americans have health insurance through an employer, the advocacy group Public Citizen tweeted: "Millions are losing health insurance during a pandemic. We need Medicare for All."

"The next relief and recovery package should provide aid to state and local governments, extend unemployment insurance benefits, provide better protections for workers and jobs, and include funding to safeguard our democracy."
—Heidi Shierholz, EPI

Based on the number of jobs deemed nonessential that cannot be done remotely, economists estimate about a third of all positions in the United States—or up to 50 million—are at risk of coronavirus-related layoffs. "It's unlikely that all those workers will be laid off or file for unemployment benefits. But it suggests the extraordinary magnitude of unemployment that could result from the pandemic," the AP reported.

"This crisis combines the scale of a national economic downturn with the pace of a natural disaster," Daniel Zhao, a senior economist at Glassdoor, told the outlet. "And that's really unprecedented in American economic history."

EPI projects that "near-term job losses could exceed 30 million, even taking into account the relief measures already in place," said Shierholz. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed in March "had some crucial provisions in it, but it is no match for the damage the economy is facing, and federal policymakers need to do more."

"The next relief and recovery package should provide aid to state and local governments, extend unemployment insurance benefits, provide better protections for workers and jobs, and include funding to safeguard our democracy," the economist added. "And importantly, we cannot turn off federal government relief too early.

"At this point it appears that even under the best-case scenario—a rapid bounce-back in the second half of the year—the unemployment rate will still be close to 10% in the fourth quarter of this year," she concluded. "Congress has the power to dramatically mitigate the suffering associated with the coronavirus shock, and they have an obligation to exercise it."

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