Jobless claim filings continued at a historically unprecedented pace last week with 4.4 million new signups for unemployment insurance, bringing the total of the past five weeks to 26.4 million, the Labor Department said Thursday.
The number represented a decline of 810,000 from the previous week, but the five-week total has now surpassed all of the job gains since the Great Recession.
Economists surveyed by Dow Jones had expected 4.3 million new claims.
"Another horrendous number, but at least the trajectory is clearly downwards," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
The insured unemployment rate, which compares those current receiving benefits to the size of the labor force, rose to 11% — a jump of 2.8% from the previous week. That translates to "a barely believable" 23% when the Labor Department releases its unemployment rate calculation in two weeks, according to Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics. The previous high for the U.S. was 24.9% during the Great Depression.
With virtually all other economic indicators pointing to the worst downturn since the Great Depression, jobless claims are seen as the most current way of measuring how deeply conditions have been impacted by social distancing associated with the coronavirus.
The surge comes amid a six-week shutdown of the economy governors and local officials are looking to restart activity.
""We are facing an unforeseen enemy and today's report continues to show that these are challenging times for many Americans who want to get back to work. Because of President Trump's leadership and the American people's commitment to slow the spread, we are on a data-driven, responsible path to opening up America again," White House spokesman Judd Deere said. "As we begin the phased approach, the Administration continues to move quickly to provide the benefits under the CARES Act that workers, families, and small businesses across the country need."
The total is far worse than anything the U.S. has seen before, with the previous one-week peak of 695,000 dating to October 1982.
Still, the decline from the worst of a few weeks ago indicates "we're likely seeing the peak in claims as people get back to work," said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. "Again, the pace at which they will is the question."
Last week's tally was revised down by 8,000 to 5.24 million.
Even though the total for the week ended April 18 fell, the continuous claims figure hit a record at just under 16 million, an increase of 4 million from the previous period. The four-week moving average jumped to 5.8 million, an increase of 280,000.
The totals remain elevated as individual states continue to try to cope with the massive influx of new claims. Florida alone saw 324,718 new filings, nearly double the previous week, according to unadjusted figures. By contrast, New York saw a plunge of nearly 190,000, cutting its claims number in half from a week earlier.
The government has rolled out rescue programs to help those laid off and the companies forced to cut payrolls due to social distancing restrictions and a collapse in demand. Claims numbers could remain elevated as the additional amounts provided in unemployment compensation raise some workers' salaries above what they were making before the furloughs.
Companies also could struggle to hire back if demand doesn't resume once the economy is restarted.
"The duration is really the key, to see how quickly we can put those on temporary layoff or furlough back on the payrolls," said Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab.