We can only guess how high unemployment will rise as the coronavirus crisis wares on. But the early numbers, based on state unemployment applications, are already staggering:
• In Colorado, 6,800 people attempted to file on Tuesday, compared with just 400 a week before.
• Connecticut residents filed 30,000 unemployment claims between Friday and Monday; the state usually receives 3,000 to 3,500 per week.
• New Jersey saw 15,000 applications on Monday, a one-day record.
• In New York, state officials are comparing the spike in claims to what occurred after 9/11.
• Massachusetts residents filed almost 20,000 claims on Monday alone, more than all of February.
• In Ohio, where the governor has ordered all bars and restaurants closed, residents filed more than 48,000 claims over two days, compared with 1,825 during the same two days a week before.
As Slate’s Aaron Mak wrote Tuesday, the extraordinary surge of layoffs has sent state unemployment websites crashing. The situation is not good.
These numbers are shocking but not surprising. The entire leisure and hospitality sector, which employs 16.9 million people, or about 10 percent of the entire labor force, is going into hibernation, as Americans avoid bars, restaurants, and travel, and states and cities begin to order establishments closed. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reportedly told Republican senators on Tuesday that, unless they passed a massive stimulus package, the country could face 20 percent unemployment, a number last seen in the Great Depression. He might be exaggerating, but given the particular contours of this crisis, which is essentially gutting the services industry, it’s not an entirely crazy thought.
Congress needs to act now. And it needs to do more than send checks to families, which seems to be the leading plan on Capitol Hill right now. As I argued on Tuesday, the bureaucratic process of actually sending that money to households could take a fair amount of time, which we do not have. The current White House plan reportedly calls for sending two rounds of $1,000 payments, which according to Politico would be made on April 6 (almost three weeks from now) and May 1, Beyond that, the sorts of payments the administration is envisioning will only cover a fraction of the income some people are now losing. The fastest, most efficient way to help the jobless would be to dramatically boost unemployment benefits, and increase support for states to handle the flood of applications. Sending a check to every family is a useful, catchy idea. But it’s not enough. We have to help the unemployed now.
Correction March 18, 2020: This post originally incorrectly attributed a quote to Economic Security Project co-chair Natalie Foster that was actually part of a background statement by her organization. I’ve removed it from the piece.