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Pandemic has put 16.8 million Americans out of work

For the second week in a row, 6.6 million Americans filed initial claims for unemployment benefits, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday, showing a sliver of the economic fallout from the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

About 261,000 fewer people filed claims during the last week of March as compared with the previous week, but the number still towers over previous records set during the 2008 recession and World War II. Over the past three weeks, 16.8 million Americans filed new claims for benefits — about 5% of the total population.

“The Covid-19 virus continues to impact the number of initial claims and its impact is also reflected in the increasing levels of insured unemployment,” the report explains.

The bureau’s March report counted 701,000 job loses throughout the month. 

As the country nears the 19.8 million job-loss mark estimated by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, others assessments show 66.8 million jobs at risk for layoffs, meaning the unemployment rate can conceivably hit 30%.

Analysis by Goldman Sachs confirms the near-halting of the U.S. economy, and others including former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen predict it likely to contract at a 30% annual rate over the next quarter.

Rhode Island, with 6.7% of its population receiving unemployment benefits, has the highest rate in the country followed by Minnesota at 5.6% and Massachusetts at 5.1%.

States that saw the larges surges in claims include California, which received 871,992 new claims last week, followed by New York and Michigan.  As of March 28, states also reported receiving 8.1 million applications for continued claims, citing layoffs in the service industries, as well as retail, food, forestry, fishing, construction, scientific and technical services, arts, entertainment, recreation, and waste management.

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Around the country, workers grapple for stability. 

“We’re mostly just relying on the stimulus check, so fingers crossed that comes in so we can pay rent,” said Bri Dolan, who gave birth to a son in Denver earlier this year.

Dolan had planned to return to work six weeks after delivery, but the virus hit before she was officially hired, leaving her unemployed and ineligible for benefits.

“It’s time to really look at yourself and your life and your choices that you made and see where you can make improvements,” she said.

Under quarantine, Dolan said she is completing online coursework to earn her GED certificate and learning how to crochet a baby blanket.

“We don’t have a social safety net in place that will keep families afloat,” said Erin Hatton, a labor sociologist and associate professor in the University of Buffalo. Her research centers around questions of who has access to work.

Hatton said that the virus is exposing pre-existing weaknesses in the economic system.

“What people need to internalize is that the economy going forward is only as strong as our most vulnerable workers,” Hatton said. “We can think that we’re doing OK, but if a crisis like this hits, and we’re spinning out, that’s a sign that it wasn’t OK and getting back to what it was before is not good enough.”

With many Americans out of work, some researchers are also making the case to strengthen protections for those who remain at work in jobs that could expose them to the disease.

“Being able to be safe at work and keeping a job should not be based on luck,” said Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at University of Washington. “Now, we should still ensure that they have a safe workplace.”

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Business owners can stagger schedules and breaks, provide staff with personal protection equipment, and support sick workers with paid leave options.

Some medical staff in Detroit received 80 hours of paid leave that workers can use if they develop symptoms or give to another co-worker in need.

Detroit emergency medical technician Siobhan Flynn said she worries most about bringing the coronavirus home to her family. Nearby, the Henry Ford Medical Center’s main campus recently found 600 hospital workers positive for the virus. 

Michigan as a whole ranks third in the nation, both in terms of unemployment claims and number of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

“There’s a lot of people here who are just scared to come to work,” Flynn said.

“When I get home, I make sure that I take everything off at the door,” Flynn said. “I Lysol and spray my shoes, my keys, everything. I wipe down my purse and I go straight to the shower.”

She even started wearing a mask when she cooks and rarely leaves the house if it’s not for work.

Besides debriefing with her co-workers, Flynn started a Facebook group to help other frontliners cope with the stress. With 19 years in the medical field, Flynn said, “I’ve seen some of the worst — taking calls down in Detroit, I’ve had a gun put on me, I’ve seen decapitations, I’ve been on every type of call, and this like the worst I’ve ever seen. More than anything it’s just mentally draining.”

Still she remains hopeful.

“I’m a spiritual person, so I try to stay prayerful,” Flynn said. “What gives me peace of mind is I’ve been trying to teach in the field and educate people. I’m just going to go do my part. I’m one piece of the puzzle.”

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Amanda Pampuro/Courthouse News Service

Colfax Avenue is the main street that bisects the metropolitan area in Denver, Colorado. Today many of the business that line the street are closed, part of a tapestry of millions of layoffs around the country.