Updated at 8:38 a.m. ET
The telephone lines are still jammed at the nation's unemployment offices.
Another 3.8 million people filed claims for jobless benefits last week, according to the Labor Department. While that's down from the previous week's 4.4 million, a staggering 30.3 million have applied for unemployment in the six weeks since the coronavirus began taking a wrecking ball to the U.S. job market.
That's roughly one out of five people who had a job in February.
The pandemic has cut a wide swath of destruction through the economy, as restaurants, retailers and businesses of all kinds closed their doors in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found half the people surveyed had either lost a job or had their hours reduced because of the pandemic and the aggressive public health measures to contain it.
The sudden job losses are all the more striking after a long period of record low unemployment, in which minorities and less-educated workers had finally begun to see brighter job prospects.
"It is heartbreaking, frankly, to see that all threatened now," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday. "All the more need for our urgent response and also that of Congress — which has been urgent and large — to do what we can to avoid longer-run damage to the economy."
Congress has authorized expanded unemployment payments of $600 per week through July. Those benefits are available not only to ordinary payroll workers but also "gig" workers and the self-employed, who ordinarily are not eligible for unemployment benefits.
Although lawmakers approved those payments more than a month ago, many workers are still waiting to collect, thanks to an overwhelmed and creaky unemployment delivery system.
"Anyone who has spent time talking with displaced workers knows that it has been an exasperating and confusing process between filing for unemployment and getting paid," said Andrew Stettner, an expert on unemployment insurance at The Century Foundation. "One can only hope that, with passing time, unemployment payments will catch up to the demands and needs of struggling families."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The telephone lines are still jammed at the nation's unemployment offices. The Labor Department reported this morning that another 3.8 million people filed claims for jobless benefits last week. While that is down from the previous week, this brings us to a new disturbing total - 30 million people have applied for unemployment in the past six weeks. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about these numbers Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Oh, this doesn't get any easier - does it? - with each passing week. What do these numbers say?
HORSLEY: Rachel, that total of 30 million jobless claims over the last six weeks, since the pandemic started taking a wrecking ball to the job market, that represents nearly 1 out of 5 people who had a job back in February. So the pandemic has really put a very large crater in the job market. And while initial claims last week were lower than the week before, they weren't a lot lower. We continue to see very high volumes of people filing for unemployment week after week. And that suggests the initial shock from the stay-at-home orders issued more than a month ago now is continuing to ripple out and do broader damage in the economy. It's not just restaurants and retail shops, but other businesses that supply those firms that have now been affected.
And then there are sort of unrelated things. You know, Boeing just announced they're going to cut 10% of the company's workforce.
HORSLEY: Obviously, the steep decline in air travel from the pandemic has just exacerbated Boeing's earlier problems with its troubled 737 Max jet.
MARTIN: So we're also going to get the overall unemployment rate soon, right? That's not going to look good, is it?
HORSLEY: No. We'll get that official number next week, and it's probably going to be higher than anything we've seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, certainly well above the 10% mark we saw during the worst of the financial crisis. And as bad as that official unemployment number is, it will almost surely understate the depth of the job losses. For one thing, it's based on a survey that was taken a couple of weeks ago, and we've now seen millions more people filing for unemployment since then. What's more, people who are still in lockdown, you know, won't be searching for new jobs, and if you're not actively looking for work, you don't get counted in the headline unemployment number. So we might look at other measures.
You know, just this week, NPR released a new survey along with our partners at PBS NewsHour and Maris College which found 50% of Americans had either lost jobs or lost working hours as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. So the pain has really been widespread.
MARTIN: And to come after such low unemployment, right? I mean, it's just such an abrupt turnaround.
HORSLEY: That's right. We've gone from having the lowest jobless rate in half a century to the highest since the Great Depression in the span of two months. So there really is some economic whiplash here. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell talked about this yesterday, and he noted once again that the long-running job boom had been really good for workers who were often on the sidelines of the economy - minorities, people with less education. These marginalized workers had finally begun to see some gains.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEROME POWELL: It is heartbreaking, frankly, to see that all threatened now - all the more need for our urgent response and also that of Congress, which has been urgent and large, and to do what we can to avoid longer-run damage to the economy.
HORSLEY: Congress has authorized unemployment benefits that are both more generous and more widely available during this pandemic period. But those expanded federal benefits only run through the end of July, and it's not at all clear we're going to be out of the woods by then.
MARTIN: Right. And there were so many problems with people of - the phone lines being one of them. They just couldn't get through to start the process to get their benefits.
HORSLEY: Absolutely. You know, state unemployment offices have just been overwhelmed trying to distribute the regular state benefits, and they're only beginning to distribute these expanded federal benefits. Offices have been adding staff, but they're saddled with antiquated computer systems. So the safety net is really stretched thin here. Andy Stettner, who's an expert on unemployment insurance at the Century Foundation, says anyone who's spent time talking with displaced workers knows that it's exasperating and confusing between filing and actually getting your unemployment benefit.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley for us. Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.