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One year after pandemic layoffs started, new unemployment claims rise again

Twelve months into the U.S. labor market crash, another 770,000 Americans filed jobless claims last week.
A man walks past the signs of an employment agency on March 2 in Manchester, N.H.
A man walks past the signs of an employment agency on March 2 in Manchester, N.H. [ CHARLES KRUPA ]
Published Mar. 18
Updated Mar. 18

One year ago is when it all started falling.

During the week ending March 14, 2020, more than 280,000 Americans filed their first claims for unemployment benefits, a week-to-week uptick that the U.S. Department of Labor, for the first time, deemed “clearly attributable to impacts from the COVID-19 virus.”

The next week, new claims rose by 3 million. The week after that, 3.3 million more. The U.S. labor market has struggled to recover ever since.

Twelve months later, it’s still not close. For the week ending this March 13, 770,000 Americans filed new unemployment claims, an increase of more than 45,000 from the previous week’s revised number — the biggest week-to-week leap in two months.

That number is not just far above where it stood before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also within a range that’s been relatively fixed for half a year.

Since last summer, the number of new weekly claims for jobless aid has stayed relatively fixed, vacillating between the low 700,000s and mid-900,000s. The numbers have been consistent, almost stagnant. Only when you compare them to last year’s numbers does it become clear how far we are from a full recovery. Last week, 18.2 million Americans received some form of unemployment aid. The same week a year ago, it was just under 2.1 million.

In Florida, another 16,709 people filed new unemployment claims last week, a decrease from the week before, but up more than 10,000 from the same week in 2020. To date, the state Department of Economic Opportunity has shepherded $24.2 million in state and federal unemployment benefits to more than 2.3 million claimants.

Related: Florida unemployment: Applications open for $100 mixed earner benefit claims

Some state labor indicators have improved in recent months. Florida’s unemployment rate in January was 4.8 percent — still 1.5 percent higher than in January 2020, but down from November and December.

“Last year, when everything was closed, if you would have told me that we’d be at 4.8 percent unemployment, and only half a million people smaller in the labor market, I would have taken that,” said Bradley Kamp, chairman of the economics department at the University of South Florida. “No one knew what to expect. It was pretty bleak.”

Related: Florida's jobless rate continued to drop in January

Other signs show there’s still plenty of room for recovery. For example: A new spring outlook from PNC Bank indicated 12 percent of all small- and medium-sized Florida businesses cut their workforce in 2020, and only 7 percent said they planned to increase their full-time staff in the next six months.

“I think we’re now still coming to understand the scope of how this has affected our community and our residents, and the enormous gaps that exist between economically disadvantaged persons and others,” said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of regional business leaders.

The job-loss crisis has disproportionately affected women and people of color. From February 2020 to February 2021, the national unemployment rate among white men rose 1.8 percent, while the rate among white women rose 2.4 percent. It was even higher among Asian (2.6 percent), Black (3.6 percent) and Hispanic (3.7 percent) workers.

“There are people in neighborhoods and communities within our region that have been left much further behind than others,” Homans said. “In many communities across the country, we’re going to see that it’s made the divisions deeper and wider, and that we’re going to have a disproportionate response to get people to sustain families, to get them back on their feet and back into jobs.”

Even as vaccines become more widely available, that remains difficult. Some industries have pivoted to automation or made workforce cuts that might permanently reshape the job market, Kamp said.

“In any recession, not just this one, new work habits come into play,” he said. “This was a little different, in the sense that the industries that are recalibrating their business model, a lot of them tend to be very labor-intensive, like the service industry and the hospitality industry.”

On Thursday, National Career Fairs hosted a hiring event at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tampa Airport — the Nevada company’s first in-person fair since pivoting to virtual events early in the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, about 60 percent of the people attending National Career Fairs were unemployed, with the rest looking for a career change, said Ann Blok, the company’s regional event manager. Today, “the majority of the candidates that are out there are currently unemployed due to COVID,” she said.

“Unfortunately for people that are riding out unemployment, there’s not going to be enough jobs when unemployment finally does run out,” she said. “People really need to understand that.”