Nationwide unemployment claims
Note: Official figures are seasonally adjusted. This week’s claims are not seasonally adjusted. Source: Department of Labor, state level reporting
Numbers released on Thursday by the Labor Department — as well as a preliminary analysis of even more recent data — provide the first hard confirmation that the new coronavirus is bringing the United States economy to a shuddering halt. The government reported that the number of initial unemployment claims rose to 281,000 last week, a sharp rise from 211,000 the previous week. This rise in initial claims of 70,000 is larger than any week-to-week movement that occurred during (or since) the 2008 financial crisis.
But even these numbers understate the economy’s free fall, as they reflect the state of the economy last week. Based on preliminary news reports this week from 15 states, it’s already clear that initial claims will skyrocket next week, most likely to levels never seen before.
The numbers for the state of Washington, where the coronavirus pandemic took hold earlier and has had a severe impact, are particularly notable. There, jobless claims more than doubled last week, and are now at levels recorded during the depths of the last recession.
Washington is an especially relevant case study because it imposed containment measures — including the closing of schools and restaurants and a ban on large gatherings — a week or so ahead of many other states. It seems likely that the other states’ labor markets will also follow Washington’s path.
Although Washington has not revealed the most recent official figures, state officials said that claims increased 150 percent last week and that the state was seeing an “even more dramatic increase this week.” They also mentioned that call volume surged more than eightfold on Tuesday.
As the accompanying charts show, jobless claims rose sharply in the vast majority of states.These figures come from state unemployment insurance offices tallying up the number of people newly applying for unemployment benefits.
This state-level data report is often ignored in normal times but is closely watched at economic turning points because it provides detail on what’s happening week by week, rather than each month or quarter. These figures are produced rapidly — providing hard numbers a mere six days later.
The big picture is clear: When we write the history of the coronavirus recession, we’ll say the downturn started in early March.
But don’t take these official numbers or the preliminary reports from individual states as providing precise signals: There are numerous anecdotal accounts of phone lines to unemployment offices that are jammed, offices that are closed, or websites that have crashed. The official data is on the number of claims filed, whereas the number eligible and attempting to file may be much larger.
The stark rise in jobless claims reflects the unusual nature of this recession. In a “normal” recession, the economy slows over a period of months, and joblessness rises over an even longer period as individual employers see the effect on their businesses. The resulting rise in initial unemployment claims tends to be spread over several months.
This is different. State government directives shut down many businesses, leading to an unusually rapid downturn. A rapid spike in jobless claims will also be an extremely large spike, as what would normally be a few months’ worth of job loss happens in a few weeks.
As you look at what’s going on in your state, keep in mind that these numbers reflect developments last week, but that in most states, the more draconian changes in economic life were imposed this week.
The last recession began in December 2007, but even half a year later, some economists were still debating whether the economy had entered a recession. This time, there’s no debate.