The U.S. economy lost a total of 701,000 jobs in March, bringing a record 10-year streak of employment gains to a halt as the coronavirus pandemic continues to hammer the workforce and shatter economic growth.
The closely watched monthly jobs data, released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, also shows the unemployment rate soared to 4.4 percent from 3.5 percent, after months at a half-century low.
March's data represents the tip of the iceberg, however, since the survey was conducted in the first half of the month, prior to the pandemic's grip on the economy.
Since the jobs data is always backward-looking, economists prefer to look at longer time periods — such as the three-month average — to spot trends. However, the economy has undergone a head-spinning pivot in a matter of weeks.
While March's number far outpaced expectations of 100,000 jobs lost, economists and market participants are in agreement that the April jobs report, which will be released May 8, will better illustrate the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus on the workforce. Some economists are predicting the unemployment number could be as high as 20 million.
“April will be a disaster for labor markets,” Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays, told CNBC. “We still have two more weeks, and we’re probably looking at an unemployment rate of more than 10 percent in April."
It's the first time since 2010 that the economy has registered a negative jobs number. By contrast, February's total was 273,000 jobs added.
With millions of Americans under "shelter-in-place" orders or lockdowns, businesses across the country have shuttered, forcing millions of people out of work and pushing up initial jobless claims to a staggering 10 million in the past two weeks.
On Thursday, weekly jobless claims data for the prior week showed 6.6 million Americans had filed for unemployment benefits.
That total calls into question even the best-funded states' ability to pay unemployment benefits over a sustained period, making it likelier than not that more federal intervention will be needed.
“There’s no avoiding a substantial rise in the unemployment rate, likely eclipsing the 10 percent level during the Great Recession," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com.
"The real, unanswerable question at this point is how many of these jobs come back after social distancing guidelines are relaxed and businesses reopen. We hope for the best but brace for the worst,” Hamrick said.
"We do not see activity returning to its pre-virus level until the end of 2021," analysts at Morgan Stanley wrote in a research note on Friday.