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People gather outside a New York State Department of Labor office in Brooklyn on March 20, 2020.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits shot to a record high of more than six million last week as more jurisdictions enforced stay-at-home measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, which economists say has pushed the economy into recession.

Thursday’s weekly jobless claims report from the Labour Department, the most timely data on the economy’s health, reinforced economists’ views that the longest employment boom in U.S. history probably ended in March.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits surged 3.341 million to a seasonally adjusted 6.648 million for the week ended March 28, the government said. Data for the prior week was revised to show 24,000 more applications received than previously reported, lifting the number to 3.307 million.

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Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would jump to 3.50 million in the latest week, though estimates were as high as 5.25 million.

“Similar to last week’s unemployment claims numbers, today’s report reflects the sacrifices American workers are making for their families, neighbors, and country in order to slow the spread,” Labour Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement.

The United States has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with more than 214,000 people infected. Nearly 5,000 people in the country have died from the illness, according to a Reuters tally.

The American dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies. U.S Treasury prices were trading higher while U.S. stock index futures pared gains.

Applications for unemployment benefits peaked at 665,000 during the 2007-09 recession, when 8.7 million jobs were lost. Economists say the country should brace for jobless claims to continue escalating, partly citing generous provisions of a historic US$2.3-trillion fiscal package signed by President Donald Trump last Friday and the federal government’s easing of requirements for workers to seek benefits.

As a result, self-employed and gig workers who previously were unable to claim unemployment benefits are now eligible. In addition, the unemployed will get up to US$600 a week for up to four months, which is equivalent to US$15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek. By comparison, the government-mandated minimum wage is about US$7.25 an hour and the average jobless benefits payment was roughly US$385 for each person monthly at the start of this year.

“Why work when one is better off not working financially and healthwise?” said Sung Won Sohn, a business economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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Last week’s claims data has no bearing on the closely watched employment report for March, which is scheduled for release on Friday. For the latter, the government surveyed businesses and households in the middle of the month, when just a handful of states were enforcing “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders.

It is, however, a preview of the carnage that awaits. Retailers, including Macy’s, Kohl’s Corp. and Gap Inc., said on Monday they would furlough tens of thousands of employees, as they prepare to keep stores shut for longer.

According to a Reuters survey of economists, the government report on Friday is likely to show non-farm payrolls dropped by 100,000 jobs in March after a robust increase of 273,000 in February. The unemployment rate is forecast to rise three-tenths of a percentage point to 3.8 per cent for March.

“A rough look at the most affected industries suggests a potential payroll job loss of over 16 million jobs,” said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management in New York. “The loss would be enough to boost the unemployment rate from roughly 3.5 per cent to 12.5 per cent, which would be its highest rate since the Great Depression.”

Thursday’s claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid jumped 1.245 million to 3.029 million for the week ended March 21, the highest since July 6, 2013.

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