By Nigel Chiwaya and Jiachuan Wu
The coronavirus outbreak made America’s job market go from 60 to zero in the blink of an eye.
Stay-at-home orders issued by states to stem the spread of the virus have frozen the economy. More than 16 million Americans have filed for initial unemployment benefits since mid-March, a burst that economists say is unprecedented.
“I compare it to a natural disaster, a terrorist attack and a financial shock all at once,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “We’ve never had this in history.”
California was the first state to issue a stay-at-home order and has seen the greatest number of job losses. In a state with an estimated labor force of 19.5 million, 2.2 million Californians have filed unemployment applications since March 14.
But the torrent of claims is coming from everywhere. Twenty-one states and territories have seen more than one-in-10 eligible workers file for claims in the last month. Hawaii, Michigan, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania have seen the largest percentage of cuts, with 1-in-6 workers in each of those states losing their jobs.
Comparing the weekly claims reported by the Department of Labor to the same period a year ago shows that while job losses have hit every state and territory, the damage has been unique to each region.
In Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan, the virus was like a brick wall, putting a stop to more than a year of job growth. While in Texas and Puerto Rico, economies that Daco said were struggling from falling oil prices and the long recovery from Hurricane Maria and two earthquakes, respectively, the viral shutdowns have made things even worse.
While the week of March 21 is when unemployment claims spiked nationwide, most regions saw increases earlier, with Nevada, Texas and Washington, D.C., seeing the biggest changes the week before, beginning March 14.
Experts warn the job losses will likely get worse. Oxford Economics forecasts that the unemployment rate will rise to 16 percent by May, and Daco noted that several states, including Maine, Nevada, Vermont and Florida, are more vulnerable to severe economic shock because of a combination of factors, including older populations, a large reliance on retail or hospitality, or limited work-from-home possibilities.
Diane Swonk, chief economist at the auditing firm Grant Thornton, said many laid-off workers have yet to file for benefits simply because state unemployment portals were not built for the wave of traffic they are now receiving.
“As bad as this is, it’s still an undercount.” Swonk said.
In addition, Swonk noted that cash-strapped states are likely to cut back on public services without federal aid. Already experts are warning that several states won’t have enough money to pay all of the new unemployment claims, and a Labor Department report from February found that unemployment trust funds were underfunded in nearly half of the states.
“States are much more limited in the amount they can fund via deficit funding,” Swonk said. “That means cuts to essential services including garbage pickup.”
Such cuts hampered the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, and they might be unavoidable without federal assistance.
“Congress has to get transfers to the states,” Swonk said. “We’re going to have them working in the opposite direction if we don’t get them aid.”