Record unemployment claims in US

A person walks through a nearly empty Times Square in New York, USA, 25 March 2020. EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

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More than three million people filed for unemployment benefits in the US last week. The New York Times reports that this is a record figure.

In the half-century that the government has tracked applications, the worst week ever was 695,000 “initial” claims. That was in October 1982.

The latest numbers, released by the Labor Department on Thursday, are some of the first hard data on the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down whole swaths of American life faster than government statistics can keep track.

Just three weeks ago, barely 200,000 people applied for jobless benefits, a historically low number.

As staggering as the new figures are, they almost certainly understate the problem. Some part-time and low-wage workers don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Nor do gig workers, independent contractors and the self-employed, although the emergency aid package being considered by Congress would broaden eligibility. Others who do qualify may not know it.

And the sudden rush of layoffs has led to jammed phone lines and overwhelmed computer servers at unemployment offices across the country, leaving many people unable to file claims.


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