22 million Americans apply for unemployment benefits in less than a month

Florida’s tally also jumps as efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus continue.
The number of people collecting unemployment benefits jumped again last week.
The number of people collecting unemployment benefits jumped again last week. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published April 16, 2020|Updated April 16, 2020

The onslaught on the unemployment record books continued with the release of new jobless numbers Thursday morning.

Nearly 5.25 million more people signed up for benefits across the country last week as much of the economy remained in stasis to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In the previous three weeks, 3.3 million, 6.9 million and 6.6 million people joined the unemployment rolls. Each tally obliterated the previous one-week record of 695,000 set in 1982.

The four-week deluge has far more people collecting unemployment benefits than at any time during the Great Recession, or any modern recession for that matter.

In Florida, another 181,283 signed up, despite ongoing problems with the unemployment claims website and helpline. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians couldn’t access the website to sign up in recent weeks. The state has added extra computer servers to pick up the load and has hired more people to answer the helplines.

Still, many people can’t file their claims. Others successfully filed weeks ago but haven’t received any money.

“It really seems like the system was designed to fail in every way possible,” said Bill Conner, 65, who lives south of Ocala.

Florida pays up to $275 a week in benefits, though the federal stimulus package provides another $600 a week. Unlike state benefits, self-employed workers, independent contractors and other gig economy workers are eligible for the federal money. Statewide, 1.16 million people are self-employed, out of a labor force of about 10 million, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey results for 2018, the most current available year.

Related: Gig workers add to the numbers applying for unemployment benefits.

The federal government also has agreed to pay for an additional 13 weeks of state benefits. But workers have to sign up using the state system to get any of the additional assistance.

Conner lost his job as a seasonal driver for UPS in January and couldn’t find new work. He has tried to check the state system to see if he’s eligible for the $600 a week and the extra 13 weeks, but like so many others, he cannot get a straight answer. The online application doesn’t address those issues and no one answers the helpline, he said. He has $7.35 in his checking account to last through Wednesday.

“Some of us really need the money,” he said.

Officials with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity haven’t answered fundamental questions about the process, including when state benefits will end up in people’s accounts. It can take up to three weeks, but people have waited longer than that.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday at a news conference that he told the department’s executive director that “we got to do better than that because folks are going to be looking for the support.” He added that the federal money started going out this week.

“Why they did it through the state unemployment system, I’ll never understand,” he said. “It just seems like you’re adding additional bureaucracy.”

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The number of people receiving benefits in Florida will grow in the coming weeks, as the broken system catches up. The state has a backlog of more than 500,000 applications, the governor said last week. In addition, Disney is expected to furlough 77,000 employees starting Sunday.

The 653,000 Floridians who have signed up in the past month represent 6.5 percent of the state’s workforce. The national average is closer to 13 percent. A disparity of that size makes little sense given that a huge number of Floridians work in tourism and hospitality, two of the hardest-hit industries. If anything, Florida should be ahead of the national number given the makeup of its labor force.

Researchers at the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company recently concluded the first phase of the battle to curb the spread of the virus could make 44 million to 57 million jobs — about a third of the total — vulnerable to reductions in hours or pay, temporary furloughs or permanent layoffs. That amounts to 2.9 million to 3.7 million Floridians, based on the state’s share of the total population.

The number of lost jobs across the country would be partly offset by the creation of 2 million to 3 million new jobs by groceries, pharmacies and delivery services with surging demand.

An estimated 46 percent of the vulnerable jobs are in food services, customer service and sales, McKinsey concluded. Those sectors are well represented in recent layoff notices filed by companies around the Tampa Bay area. Hooters laid off 679 employees from 11 restaurants. Between them, the Beachcomber Beach Resort and Grand Plaza Hotel on St. Pete Beach let go of 359 people.

Recent cutbacks also have included 68 temporary layoffs at DriveTime auto sales in Clearwater and 62 health care jobs at the Florida Spine Institute and the CMed Ambulatory Surgery Center.

“At this time, we do not know if the mass layoff is permanent or temporary,” the center’s administrator Rhonda Librado said in a notice to the state.

Michelle Carter, 42, of St. Petersburg.
Michelle Carter, 42, of St. Petersburg. [ Photo courtesy Michelle Carter ]

Michelle Carter, 42, of St. Petersburg stayed up two nights getting an application into the state’s unemployment claims system after her work cleaning Airbnb units dried up. She started the business, which recently had begun paying her $600 to $700 a week, earlier this year but had not been able to save any money.

She recently received a $600 income tax refund and made another $100 participating in a study to test a face cream, but money remains a concern. Carter said it appears that she’s been denied for the state aid but has not been able to get any updates on whether she’ll be approved for the $600-per-week federal benefit.

“I can’t get anybody on the phone,” she said.

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