Unemployment claims surge by 6.6 million as coronavirus continues to rout U.S. workforce

"The only limitation on the number of applications has been the states' ability to process those claims," said one analyst.

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By Martha C. White

Another wave of 6.6 million American workers filed first-time unemployment claims for the week that ended April 4, bringing the cumulative total to an astonishing 16 million over the past three weeks.

For the week that ended March 21, 3.3 million people filed new unemployment claims, easily shattering the record of 695,000, set in 1982. Last week, that astounding figure doubled, as 6.6 million people filed claims for the week that ended March 28 — a figure that was revised upward to 6.9 million in the new release.

Thursday's figure was at the high end of analysts' estimates of 4.5 million to 7 million.

"So far, jobless claims look to me like the only limitation on the number of applications has been the states' ability to process those claims," said Darrell Cronk, chief investment officer of Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management.

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The cumulative toll of the last three weeks comes as last week's Labor Department release showed that the economy shed 701,000 jobs in March — a figure far more negative than anticipated, although economists said it captured only a fraction of the carnage in the labor market in the second half of the month.

America's stunning unemployment surge during the coronavirus, visualized

Economists say the percentage of people out of work has soared since then.

"It's fair to say we're now into the double digits," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.

How long this all could last remains an open question. In an interview with Savannah Guthrie on the "TODAY" show Wednesday, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said officials were evaluating whether to extend their recommendation that people continue social distancing beyond the current guideline of April 30.

Cronk said: "I think we've got a ways to go, or several weeks of this, as states catch up and as those claims continue to come in."

Zandi said that while the first wave of job losses hit the hardest in consumer-facing sectors such as leisure, hospitality and retail, the continued weekly losses in the millions indicated that the pain was spreading across the economy.

"Now it's broadening out — manufacturing, construction, of course the energy sector," he said, along with pockets of health care, wholesale, professional and personal services.

Zandi predicted that the unemployment rate will climb as high as 15 percent later this spring, a remarkable free fall for a job market at half-century lows.

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Cronk said: "People are so fixated on the labor market and the impairment of the labor market because it does drive what we expect for GDP contraction."

Cronk estimated that second-quarter gross domestic product will contract by 22 percent on a quarter-to-quarter basis, adding that he anticipates the beginning signs of a recovery by the third quarter. "It still looks like minus-3 percent for the whole year, but it's going to be a wild ride," he said.