U.S. job losses soar past 26 million as states move to reopen

WASHINGTON, USA – Job losses from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States climbed to 26.4 million on Thursday, April 23, as Congress is poised to approve a new stimulus measure and governors in some states move to slowly reopen businesses.

Sobering data released by the Labor Department showed 4.4 million Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits in the week that ended April 18, underscoring the damage done to the world's largest economy by the crisis.

The figure represents a drop from recent weeks, but totals are still well higher than any recorded during the global financial crisis starting in 2008, as virus lockdown measures force businesses to close.

The House of Representatives was set to give its seal of approval to the latest stimulus bill, which would add nearly $500 billion in fresh relief funds for devastated small businesses and overwhelmed hospitals.

That builds upon the massive $2.2-trillion CARES Act stimulus measure passed in late March.

The new bill under consideration would provide another $320 billion in funding for a depleted program to aid small businesses, along with $75 billion for hospitals, $25 billion to expand virus testing, and $60 billion in disaster recovery loans and grants. 

More than 200 lawmakers were to attend the session to ensure a quorum, and only small groups were allowed to enter the chamber at a time. Many wore face masks.

After that, President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law.

To open or not to open?

In states where the outbreak has been less severe, governors are moving to begin the slow process of returning to normal, some in response to a spate of anti-lockdown protests.

But their measures are being called into question – and Trump specifically criticized a decision to open hair salons, tattoo parlors, and gyms in Georgia from Friday, April 24.

"I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities," Trump told reporters on Wednesday, April 22.

"At the same time, he must do what he thinks is right."

In Florida, another Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is considering similar measures.

The US has recorded more coronavirus-related deaths than any other nation, with the toll at nearly 47,000 as of early Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Double-digit unemployment

Calling the jobless figure "extraordinarily elevated," Oxford Economics predicted the US was on track for a spike in the unemployment rate to 24%.

That is a reversal of fortune that was unthinkable at the beginning of the year, when the rate was in the low single digits.

"While there is great uncertainty surrounding the magnitude of the job losses in April, we expect a total decline of around 24 million that will touch a wide range of jobs, but be concentrated in the accommodation and food services, recreation, retail, and transportation sectors," Oxford Economics wrote in an analysis.

For Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics, a further decline in unemployment claims is expected next week.

But he noted that "the rate of fall of Google searches for 'file for unemployment' has slowed, suggesting it will take several more weeks before claims drop below one million."

In another sign of the pandemic's damage, government data released on Thursday showed home sales collapsing in March, declining 15.4% compared to February – exceeding analyst expectations.

The decrease was seen in all areas of the country, with the sharpest contractions in the northeast and the west – both regions have experienced significant virus outbreaks.

Perhaps having factored in the grim jobless data now released on consecutive Thursdays, Wall Street indices were up in mid-morning trade, with the Dow 1.1% higher. – Rappler.com