36m Americans now unemployed as another 3m file for benefits

The terrible toll of the coronavirus pandemic on the US economy continued unabated last week as another three million people filed for unemployment benefits, making a total of more than 36 million in the last two months.

The latest figures from the labor department show the rate of claims is slowing but the record-breaking pace of layoffs has already pushed unemployment to levels unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. For comparison just 188,264 unemployment claims were filed in the same week in 2019.

This week the department of labor started releasing figures for those eligible to file for benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, a federal unemployment scheme set up for the self employed and gig workers like Uber drivers who had previously not been eligible to make claims. Some 841,995 people made claims under PUA for the week ending 9 May.

Some states have begun to relax quarantine rules and open more businesses, a trend that is likely to help reverse some recent job losses. But many states are still dealing with an overwhelming backlog of claims, so the true number of job losses is still underrepresented by the government figures.

The already financially vulnerable have been hit hardest by the quarantine shutdowns. On Thursday, the Federal Reserve will release a report detailing who has been hurt by the economic meltdown. The Fed chair, Jerome Powell, said on Wednesday that the report would show 40% of households earning less than $40,000 had experienced job losses.

Last week the department of labor said some 20 million people had lost their jobs in April as the unemployment rate shot up to 14.7% from just 4.4% in March. The figures showed the sharpest rises in unemployment were suffered by those without college educations, African Americans and Latinos.

Jilma Guevara was laid off at the end of March from her job as a security officer in the cargo area of Miami airport in Florida and is worried that she will not be able to go back to work even when things reopen.

Guevara says she tried to organize her fellow security officers in the cargo area when her company was not giving her and her co-workers proper protective gear. They laid her off, but others with less seniority – Guevara has worked for the company for six years – are still working.

It took a month for Guevara’s unemployment claim to successfully get through Florida’s system and receive payments. While she has support from friends, she is unable to support her family in Nicaragua and is worried about how much longer she can go without a job.

“I worry about not being able to pay my rent a lot,” Guevara said in Spanish through a translator. “I think I was laid off because I was trying to organize my workers, so I see my future as very dark without a lot of hope.”

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