US unemployment applications reach over 26m as states struggle to keep pace

An additional 4.4 million Americans filed for unemployment last week adding to a total of over 26 million since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown swathes of the US and brought its economy to a standstill.

The pace of layoffs appears to have slowed slightly but a backlog of claims mean millions more are likely to file in the coming weeks. States across the country are encountering problems with the sheer number of people applying for unemployment benefits.

In Florida, already bedevilled by the widespread collapse of its already flawed benefits system, just 14.2% of the more than 668,000 claims filed since 15 March have been paid. In Ohio, claimants now have to file on a specific day of the week, depending on the first letter of their last name, to ease congestion. Washington residents are complaining that the state’s website crashes or takes hours to respond.

Latasha Johnson, 41, has been struggling to get by without a paycheck for a month. In mid-March, she was laid off from her job in dining services at the University of Illinois, where she was employed by the British-based multinational Compass.

She had no severance and it took a month for her to file an unemployment claim because the site was overwhelmed.

Johnson said it was especially difficult because she is a single mother. “I pay for all my bills on my own, I don’t have any outside help, outside resources, I am doing everything by myself,” she said. “It’s a huge, huge struggle.”

Now, she’s waiting for her first unemployment check, which is a fraction of what she made before. She said the $1,200 stimulus check from the government will also do little to help her situation.

“If you are releasing it in the month of April and I pay my bills for May where does that leave me for June, July, August?” Johnson said. “We’re at a standstill because we don’t know when the city will open back up.”

Delays in processing applications have boosted the weekly totals in recent weeks but economists believe the unprecedented wave of claims is near its peak.

Nomura economist Lewis Alexander said the labor market remains “under severe strain” but said that “states that imposed lockdowns relatively early are seeing claims activity improve somewhat.”

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