Jobless Claims Rise To An Unprecedented ‘Holy F**K!'

Jobless claims for the week ending April 4 were released Thursday, and they're terrible, as expected. According to the US Department of Labor, 6.6 million people filed for unemployment last week. That's slightly lower than the previous week's 6.8 million, but happy days are hardly here again. For one thing, the previous week's initial tally was 6.6 million; the 6.8 million was an upward revision, which it would not be crazy to expect might happen again.

True, more people — gig workers, independent contractors — are eligible for unemployment thanks to the CARES Act, but any inflation in numbers there is likely offset by all the people who can't file claims at all because so many states have garbage unemployment insurance systems (by design). (Also, we haven't heard of any states that have figured out how to process the gig workers' claims yet. California, maybe?) It's probable that far more people are seeking assistance than the numbers reveal.

It's all quite a shock to the economic system. Barely a month ago, unemployment was at record lows of 4.4 percent. What Barack Obama's recovery giveth, Donald Trump's incompetent COVID response taketh away.

Andrew Stettner from the Century Foundation states that just 53 percent of people who've filed for unemployment by March 28 have had their applications processed. It's not like the unlucky 47 percent had an emergency pandemic savings account. A key part of any good government stimulus is making sure that people can actually benefit from it before dying of malnutrition. If these are “unprecedented" times, as we so often hear, we need an “unprecedented" government response when it comes to processing unemployment claims and getting benefits to the people who desperately need them.

Economists such as Justin Wolfers from the University of Michigan and former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, who you will remember was fired for "being too short," estimate that the current unemployment rate is around 13 percent, perhaps higher. Yellen herself predicts that unemployment could reach 30 percent as a result of the crisis. Vox's Matthew Yglesias argued at the end of March that American needs a "massive wartime mobilization" to combat Depression-scale joblessness.

And despite frantic moves from the Federal Reserve last week and a big stimulus bill from Congress, the steps taken thus far are too small and too timid — like a series of mattresses to cushion the fall when the US needs a trampoline to bounce everyone back to full employment. That's not a job that can afford to wait until after the epidemiological crisis is solved any more than the Allies waited until after defeating Hitler to cure the Great Depression. The US needs to beat the virus in part through a massive, deliberate mobilization that puts people back to work.

The necessary shutdowns of businesses are extending with no immediate end in sight. It's also unclear what entire industries dependent on large groups gathering together will look like when we are able to leave our homes. Broadway theaters will remain dark through June. Broadway brought in more than $1.8 billion in ticket sales and broke attendance records last season, but now New York is hardly an ideal tourist destination. When will that change? And can theaters survive if they open but for several months must operate at reduced capacity? Towns such as Ashland, Oregon, depend so heavily on tourism and revenue related to its Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for instance, that it's as if the entire community has been shut down.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown extended the ban on dine-in business in bars and restaurants, and it's indefinite.

BROWN: We all want to return to a day where we can frequent the restaurants and businesses that have given Oregon its well-deserved culinary reputation and provided so many jobs for Oregonians. I wish I could say there was a date certain when that could happen. But it would be irresponsible to lift these restrictions in the middle of this outbreak.

This makes sense, of course, but my one quibble is that it's not just about the public enjoying hip Portland cuisine again. For most of us, it's as if we've all — regardless of our faith — given up everything fun for Lent. But while we wait for the bans to lift, actual businesses are struggling to stay afloat and maintain even a skeleton crew staff. Brown announced a moratorium on commercial evictions for nonpayment over the next 90 days, but her executive order implies business owners are still expected to pay up when the bans are lifted. It's unclear how restaurants, even with SBA assistance, can survive several months without real revenue (limited take-out and delivery won't cut it).

As the Economic Policy Institute pointed out, “black and Hispanic workers are more concentrated in front-line service jobs that have been particularly hit hard by social distancing" and are “likely experiencing greater job loss." It was hard to imagine anything worse for minorities than Trump's presidency, but the coronavirus crisis has defied the grimmest imagination.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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