Americans filed a total of 281,000 new claims for unemployment benefits during the week ending March 14, up 70,000 from the week before and the highest level since Hurricane Harvey hit in September 2017, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
It's an early sign that coronavirus will likely hit many Americans hard. Nearly a third are already fearful they won't be able to pay major bills, like housing, if the economy tumbles even more.
JoAnna Vrasich, 54, is one of those out of work, after the finance company she was temping for had let her go because of coronavirus. "It's not easy finding a permanent job," she tells CNBC Make It. And with the pandemic, she expects it will be even worse because no one is going to want applicants to come in for a job interview. With no immediate job prospects, she's worried how she'll be able to afford rent after her last paycheck comes in.
While Vrasich filed for unemployment in Florida, she estimates she will only receive about $275 a week, or about $1,100 a month. Yet she says the monthly rent on her one-bedroom apartment just outside St. Petersburg is $1,178. She'll also need to cover her other living expenses, including her car payment, groceries, cell phone and utility bill.
Vrasich's plan is to pay her rent and car with her last paycheck and then use the unemployment benefits to pay for her cell phone and electricity. That will get her through April. But, "after that, I'm like the Titanic, I'm going down," Vrasich says. She relied on savings and her tax refund to get her through previous months of unemployment between temp gigs, so there's nothing left this time around.
Those like Vrasich who are filing unemployment now are likely the tip of the iceberg, experts say. Especially if the U.S. enters a recession, which about half of Americans believe will occur in the next six months, according to a new poll of over 1,200 U.S. adults fielded by YouGov on March 16 and 17.
When economic growth slows in a recession, unemployment usually rises because companies generate less revenue and may need to lay off employees. In the case of coronavirus, there hasn't been an official call on whether the U.S. is in a recession, but hundreds of thousands are filing for unemployment benefits.
Many Americans may face financial problems. About 31% of those with payments due say that they're not confident they'll be able to pay their rent or mortgage if the U.S. slips into a recession, according to those polled by YouGov exclusively for CNBC Make It.
Rent is not the only bill Americans are worried about paying. About 31% of those with debt say they're not confident in their ability to make credit card payments. And almost half of those with student loans are worried about continuing to make payments on their debt, saying they're not confident in their ability to keep up.
Overall, about 46% of those polled by YouGov say they are "very unprepared" or "not at all prepared" personally for an economic recession.
Before you start to panic, experts say there is some good news. The University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index rose to a high in February, and while it will likely decline in March, consumers are exhibiting greater resiliency than during the Great Recession, says Dan Geller, a behavioral economist and the founder of Analyticom LLC. The consumer sentiment index started declining a year before the official recession of 2008.
"Consumers are more confident this time around because they know that we are facing a temporary health care crisis rather than an underlying economic problem," Geller says, adding that there's no systemic issues this time and the economy is fundamentally hearty. "The fact that consumers exhibited high confidence all the way to February indicates that we can expect them to bounce back as soon as the health care crisis is over," he says.
In the meantime, the government is taking steps to help Americans keep a roof over their heads during the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday there would be a 60-day pause on "all foreclosures and evictions" for homeowners with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Homeowners with single-family mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will also be included in the foreclosure relief, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The FHFA also rolled out a payment forbearance program for borrowers impacted by the coronavirus earlier this month that allows for a mortgage payment to be suspended for up to 12 months due to hardship caused by COVID-19.
However, for those who rent, like Vrasich, the relief is less certain. Cities and states around the country — including Baltimore, Boston, Kansas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York state, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle — have announced bans on evictions to keep renters from being kicked out of their homes for at least the next month.
For most, the best advice experts have is to talk to your individual landlord, says Bobbi Rebell, a certified financial planner and host of the Financial Grownup podcast. "They are effectively your partner in this. They don't want you moving out and having to find a new tenant. So find a mutually beneficial solution, such as a rent deferral," she says.
Of course, that's not a guarantee. "My apartment complex isn't willing to help," Vrasich says. Her management did hand out a list of charities that might be able to step in, though. Those who find themselves in this situation may have to consider taking out personal loans, putting expenses on credit cards or taking a loan from their retirement accounts.
"It's a shame because everything was going really good, but then then the gosh darn coronavirus hit," Vrasich says.