In Just 3 Weeks Of Coronavirus Crisis, Mass. Unemployment Claims Surpass First Year Of Great Recession

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Massachusetts workers are filing unemployment claims at a record pace amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)
The Massachusetts online unemployment application is pictured. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)

Job losses are accelerating at a breathtaking pace amid the coronavirus pandemic and have now reached a grim milestone: Massachusetts workers filed more initial unemployment claims in the past three weeks than they did during the first year of the Great Recession.

New applications for unemployment insurance in the state totaled 139,582 in the week ending April 4, according to figures the U.S. Labor Department published Thursday. Since claims spiked in mid-March, almost 470,000 workers have filed for benefits.

That staggering number, reached in just a few weeks, eclipses the number of initial claims submitted during the first 54 weeks of the recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.

Source: U.S. Labor Department (Callum Borchers/WBUR)
Source: U.S. Labor Department (Callum Borchers/WBUR)

"These are numbers that are historically huge, well out of the realm of previous experience — even during the Great Recession," said Boston College economist Robert Murphy. "We've never seen a surge that's happened so quickly."

The Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank in Boston, estimates 975,000 people in Massachusetts could be unemployed by June. That's far more than during the Great Recession, when there were no more than 275,621 unemployed people in the state at any one time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unemployment continued to swell slightly after the recession technically ended but never came close to the total Pioneer is projecting for the coronavirus. That is partly because the crisis of the aughts unfolded much more slowly than the current one.

In the Great Recession, there were nearly 759,000 initial jobless claims in Massachusetts, spread out over a year and a half. Some laid-off workers managed to find other jobs, which helped keep the state's unemployment rate in single digits.

Single-week unemployment claims during the recession peaked at 22,028 — less than the daily average of recent weeks.

Source: U.S. Labor Department (Callum Borchers)
Source: U.S. Labor Department (Callum Borchers)

Workers in some of the same industries hit by the recession are absorbing more sudden and forceful blows now. For example, hospitality jobs quickly dwindled last month, as the state urged people to stay home; then many of the remaining jobs vanished last week, when Gov. Charlie Baker banned hotel bookings by anyone but essential workers and people displaced by the coronavirus.

"Pretty much everybody in our hotel industry worldwide is out of business right now," said Tim O'Reilly, who was laid off from his job as a banquet server at the Westin Boston Waterfront.

O'Reilly said he has been volunteering 12 hours a day to help colleagues apply for unemployment insurance. Most are not yet receiving benefits, he added.

"We're pretty darn close to devastation right now, for a lot of people," he said.

Meanwhile, many workers in higher-paying, white-collar positions are simply doing their jobs from home, their lives inconvenienced but not upended by the outbreak — at least for now. Vastly different experiences within the state workforce are laying bare racial inequalities, said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch.

"Individuals who are in lower wage-earning positions, individuals who are part-time, individuals who are working in the gig economy — they have been most likely to be furloughed or to be laid off during this crisis," she said. "And, disproportionately, what we find is people of color are in those roles."

Though current unemployment trends are worse than those of the Great Recession, in some ways, there are bright spots, said Arindrajit Dube, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"Most layoffs in the Great Recession were not temporary layoffs; they were permanent layoffs," Dube said. "This, right now, is a scenario where we think and hope — and I believe — that most of the layoffs will be temporary."


Headshot of Callum Borchers

Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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