• Nearly 1.9 million Americans filed initial unemployment claims last week, the lowest number since the week that ended March 14
  • The May unemployment rate is to be released Friday and is expected to be around 20%
  • An expert estimates 73% of claims totaling $93 billion have been paid so far

The Labor Department Thursday reported nearly 1.9 million Americans filed initial unemployment claims last week, bringing to more than 42 million the number who have lost their jobs since the coronavirus pandemic began in mid-March. The number of filings was the lowest since the week ended March 14 when the full impact of state-mandated lockdowns began to be felt.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the unemployment rate at 14.8% for the preceding week, a tick higher than April’s 14.7% rate, and experts estimate more than a million more people have yet to see unemployment benefits. The May unemployment rate was to be released Friday and economists estimated it could be as high as 20%.

More Americans are unemployed now than during the Great Depression.

“Earlier this year, 1.88 million new unemployment claims in one week would have seemed catastrophic. Today, it’s a small respite in a sea of unending bad news,” unemployment expert Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said in an email to IBTimes.

Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate, noted the number of initial claims have fallen for the 11th straight week but continuing claims are continuing to rise.

"In many ways, the claims numbers provide the closest thing to real-time insight into the status of the badly damaged job market," Hamrick said. "No matter how you crunch the variety of statistics, the job market story is devastating and heartbreaking unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. That’s among a series of coinciding storms we’re currently experiencing.

"As some return to work amid falling pandemic restrictions, the economy’s likely to be slow healing process appears to have begun. Still, a Bankrate survey finds the consensus among economists is that the jobless rate will remain in the double-digits into next year."

Stettner predicted Friday’s May jobless report would be “calamitous.” A Century Foundation analysis found nearly half the claims filed since the crisis began had been paid by the end of April, increasing from 14% in March to 47% by the end of April. Stettner estimated the figure has risen to 73% of claims, translating to $93 billion in benefits.

BLS said the total number of people claiming benefits for the week that ended May 16 was more than 29.9 million, compared to 1.5 million in the comparable week last year. Extended benefits were available in 22 states. Thirty-five states reported 10.7 million individuals claimed Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, up from 33 states the preceding week, and 209,692 claimed Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Benefits.

“At this pace, unemployment benefits will continue to shoulder much of the burden of bolstering spending power and securing families’ economic well-being as we enter into the summer,” Stettner said, urging Congress to act to extend the emergency benefits granted under the CARES Act.

“Already, 200,000 workers are relying on extended benefits and many of these workers -- and millions more -- will run out of benefits by Dec. 31. Congress must ensure this does not happen.”

Unemployment rates were highest in Nevada, Maine, Michigan, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, with Maine, Oklahoma, Michigan, Kentucky and Oregon recording the biggest increases in initial claims. The biggest decreases were in Washington, Florida, California, New York and Illinois.