WASHINGTON -- In the fastest surge of layoffs and economic decline in U.S. history, nearly 17 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits in the last three weeks, the government reported Thursday.
Economists said the tidal wave of layoffs, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, suggests the U.S. unemployment rate in April will be 15% or even higher.
Given the speed with which the numbers are rising, unemployment could ultimately reach levels seen only once before in almost 100 years -- the Great Depression of the 1930s, when one out of four workers were jobless.
The claims filed in the last three weeks are "a mind-boggling 2,500% increase over the pre-virus period," economists at the Economic Policy Institute said.
"For a benchmark, this is as if the entire adult population of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin applied for unemployment insurance in the last three weeks."
The Federal Reserve, anticipating the bleak news in the Labor Department's latest weekly jobless claims report, announced minutes later that it was creating a new set of programs to provide $2.3 trillion in loans to aid businesses and states and cities.
"We are moving with alarming speed from 50-year lows in unemployment to what will likely be very high, although temporary, levels," said Fed Chair Jerome Powell, speaking Thursday morning on web interview with the Brookings Institution.
The central bank has pulled out all stops to flood the economy with cash to keep credit flowing and prevent a freeze-up in the financial system, but analysts said the magnitude of the layoffs shows that neither the Fed's interventions nor Congress's $2.2 trillion relief package will be enough.
"The major takeaway from the labor market data is that Congress and the administration are going to have to provide more aid to a beleaguered domestic labor force that will face a period of mass unemployment," said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at the accounting firm RSM US.
Already the Trump administration and lawmakers have talked about increasing the $350 billion small-business lending program that could turn into forgivable loans for retaining employees.