Five weeks on, 26 million Americans out of work due to pandemic shutdowns

A record 505,137 Floridians managed to file claims last week, though the state has processed only 1 in 8 it’s received in recent weeks, the worst rate in the nation.
An unidentified employee at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library hands an unemployment application to a motorist Monday, April 13, 2020 in Tampa.
An unidentified employee at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library hands an unemployment application to a motorist Monday, April 13, 2020 in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published April 23, 2020|Updated April 24, 2020

More than 4.4 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday, bringing the total to 26 million since the coronavirus closed much of the economy.

That equates to about 16 percent of the civilian workforce in the U.S. losing a job in the last five weeks. The weekly totals for the first month of the collapse were: 3.3 million, 6.9 million, 6.6 million and 5.2 million — each number five to 10 times as big as the previous one-week record from 1982.

Florida recorded a record 505,137 new applications for unemployment benefits, more than 320,000 more than the previous week. Florida’s one-week total accounted for more than 11 percent of new claims from around the country. Only six other states recorded an increase in claims, though none were close to as large as Florida’s. Connecticut had the second largest jump at 68,707.

Tallahassee’s response to the crisis has been hobbled by a notoriously flawed unemployment claims website that continues to thwart laid-off workers seeking jobless benefits.

Amber Hicks of St. Petersburg applied for unemployment after being put on an unpaid furlough from her project manager job at a company that opens bars and restaurants at airports. Her boss, who lives in Maryland, applied the same day and has already received two weeks’ worth of state and federal benefits.

Hicks, 31, hasn’t received anything. And every time she tries to log on to claim specific weeks of benefits, she runs into a dilemma. The first page tells her that requirements dictating that recipients must apply for a minimum number of jobs have been waived during the crisis. But a few pages on, the website demands information about how many jobs she’s applied for. She doesn’t want to lie, but when she puts in the truth, the site tells her she does not qualify for benefits.

The website also is slow, taking minutes to process information she enters, no matter whether she uses her phone, iPad or laptop. Her attempts to reach anyone at the state Department of Economic Opportunity by telephone have been fruitless.

“There’s no way to speak to anybody just to get your questions answered, much less complain,” Hicks said.

Like many laid-off Floridians, Amber Hicks of St. Petersburg has run into problems using the state's unemployment benefits website. (Photo courtesy Amber Hicks)
Like many laid-off Floridians, Amber Hicks of St. Petersburg has run into problems using the state's unemployment benefits website. (Photo courtesy Amber Hicks) [ Amber Hicks ]

“It’s insane,” she said. “There’s people that need money now. There’s people that, day by day, hour by hour, are affected. People with children. People with elderly parents that they have to take care of. Every single day is literally hurting them.”

Hicks is far from alone in her frustration.

The state has received more than 1.7 million claims for unemployment. But on Wednesday the state said just 108,000 people who have filed since March 15 have received any money. The 6 percent rate of fulfilling claims was double what it had been just a few days earlier.

The state offers a maximum unemployment benefit of $275 a week for up to 12 weeks, with more weeks added if the state’s unemployment rate rises above 5 percent. In addition, Congress has approved federal unemployment benefits of $600 a week to jobless Americans that include, for the first time, self-employed workers, independent contractors and other gig economy workers. But people have to use the state’s system to apply for the federal benefits.

An Associated Press analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data found that nearly 7 of every 8 Floridians who managed to file claims during the three weeks from mid-March until early April were waiting to have them processed — the worst rate in the country.

Related: Florida unemployment claims reach 1.7 million as processing creeps along

Nationwide, losses in employment or wages spread in April, hitting lower-income workers the hardest, according to a survey of more than 4,900 U.S. adults released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

About 43 percent said the pandemic has caused them or someone in their household to lose a job or take a pay cut. Among lower-income adults, 52 percent reported a loss in employment or wages. And only 23 percent of lower-income respondents said that they had enough savings to cover three months’ of expenses if they lost their income.

In Florida, layoff notices filed with the state — some dated in late March but only becoming public this week — continue to outline the extent of the job losses.

One of the largest cutbacks was 1,464 jobs eliminated on March 20 by Ringling Bros. parent company Feld Entertainment, which is based in Manatee County and operates Disney On Ice, Marvel Universe Live, Jurassic World Live Tour, Monster Jam and Sesame Street Live. Among those laid off were more than 400 ice skaters and nearly 100 other performers.

“The speed and breadth of the pandemic’s spread, the resultant widespread government-mandated closures of public gatherings (banning our shows), and the related travel restrictions in response thereto were unforeseeable,” Feld vice president of human resources Kirk McCoy wrote in a notice to the state.

Related: Pandemic projected to hit Tampa Bay and Florida harder than the rest of the U.S.

Around the Tampa Bay area, companies have laid off or furloughed:

• 243 employees from Asbury Automotive Group, one of the largest auto retailers in the country. The company, based in Duluth, Ga., has Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Kia, Mercedez Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealerships in Tampa and Palm Harbor. Those affected included mechanics, as well as sales, shop and office staff.

• 122 employees at three businesses in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village: 104 at Bartaco, 10 at the Paper Source and eight at Suitsupply.

• 70 from the St. Petersburg offices of Beasley Media Group, which owns or operates 63 radio stations.

• 26 workers in golf operations, maintenance or food and beverage service at the TPC Tampa Bay golf course in Lutz.

• 39 employees from vision and eye care retailer VSPOne in Clearwater.

• • •

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