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Data Sharpen Focus On How Many Workers Lost Jobs To COVID-19

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, another 3.2 million people filed unemployment claims last week. These new numbers from the Labor Department this morning show that while the pace of layoffs is slowing, these numbers are still just staggering. NPR's Jim Zarroli has been looking into them. Good morning, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what should we take from this this morning?

ZARROLI: Well, you know, it's just more evidence of carnage in the job market. Since the middle of March, we have had 33 1/2 million people losing jobs. Now tomorrow, we're going to get a fuller picture of just how bad it is. We will get the April unemployment report. Remember, the February unemployment rate was 3 1/2% - very low. A lot of economists say the rate tomorrow could be more like 15%.

GREENE: Wow.

ZARROLI: We just haven't seen numbers like this in 80 years. So we're seeing this almost unfathomable increase in people losing their jobs. It's been sudden, and it's been severe.

GREENE: And, Jim, for people who have lost jobs, I know it was really frustrating at, least in the beginning, to access any unemployment benefits. Are things getting any easier?

ZARROLI: Well, people are filing for unemployment. I mean, they're not necessarily all getting benefits, but they are sort of in line for them. But we do hear from a lot of people who are having trouble. Yesterday, I talked to Edith McNair (ph). She worked for a rental car company in Florida. She was furloughed. And right away, she went online to file for unemployment. It took a long time. The computer kept crashing. She had to log on and off. McNair says to this day, she isn't sure she's been approved. So just to be on the safe side, she also mailed in an application. I asked her, you know, what the whole experience was like.

EDITH MCNAIR: Oh, frustrating, aggravating, like you're being punished for losing your job basically. Through no fault of my own I'm being punished, which is even worse.

ZARROLI: You know, there's another point to make here. Where you live can determine how you fare when you don't have a job. States like Massachusetts are pretty generous with benefits; Florida, where she lives, is not. People really have to jump through hoops to get benefits. And even if you do qualify, the amount of money you get is low. It's on average $250 a week. And Florida is a state that has been fairly hard hit by the epidemic because it depends heavily on tourism and travel. Last week, 173,000 people in the state filed for claims.

GREENE: Jim, I mean, is there any positive sign in all this? I mean, I mentioned maybe the pace of layoffs is slowing down. Could things be stabilizing at some point?

ZARROLI: Yeah. I mean, we are seeing fewer job losses every week. That's a good sign. Last week, we saw 3.2 million jobs lost, which was about half of what it was at the end of March. But the numbers are still high. I talked with Elise Gould, who is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, which is sort of a left-leaning think tank. She says we're going to continue to bleed jobs for a while.

ELISE GOULD: I think we are not near the peak yet. I think we are still going to see additional job losses show up in the data for May, for June. Unfortunately, I don't think this has gotten as bad as it will get yet.

ZARROLI: And she says a lot of people have been furloughed, people like waiters and hairdressers, so they're not actively looking for jobs, and the government doesn't count them as as unemployed. So she says the actual number of people who are out of work is probably a good bit higher than it appears to be.

GREENE: NPR's Jim Zarroli for us this morning. Jim, thanks a lot.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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