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Filings For Unemployment Benefits Rise As Coronavirus Hits Job Market

The coronavirus pandemic has closed businesses around the country as the government asks people to stay home.
Angela Weiss
AFP via Getty Images
The coronavirus pandemic has closed businesses around the country as the government asks people to stay home.

Updated at 10:13 a.m. ET

New claims for unemployment benefits climbed to 281,000 last week as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses and left people out of work, the Labor Department said Thursday. It was the highest level since Sept. 2, 2017, when they totaled 299,000.

That latest number, for the week ended last Saturday, was an increase of 70,000 from the prior week. But the numbers are expected to jump even more this week as several states reported that their unemployment claims websites had crashed with so many people trying to file at the same time.

Oxford Economics said the report is "a small preview of what's to come. ... We expect the virus to cause significant job losses as the economy sinks into a deep recession."

The Labor Department said that "a number of states specifically cited COVID-19 related layoffs, while many states reported increased layoffs in service related industries broadly and in the accommodation and food services industries specifically, as well as in the transportation and warehousing industry, whether COVID-19 was identified directly or not."

While many companies now allow their employees to work at home, telecommuting isn't an option for many people. Restaurants, which have had to close except for pickup and delivery, have been particularly hard hit. And Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are suspending production until the end of March.

Colorado and other states have seen a spike in filings this week. On March 9 about 400 people filed new claims in Colorado, but at 10 a.m. Tuesday nearly 7,000 people were trying to enter their claims in the system, said Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Barela says that two weeks ago it took 10 minutes for callers to get through to the employment office. Now it takes at least an hour.

In Ohio, 78,000 people filed for unemployment during the first three days of this week alone, compared to 6,500 in all of last week.

In several states — including New York, Oregon and New Jersey — so many people applied for unemployment that websites went down.

"We saw a record number of unemployment insurance applications, so many in fact that the state system crashed," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said.

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Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.