WASHINGTON — More than 4.4 million workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as job cuts escalated across an economy laid low by the coronavirus crisis, the federal government said Thursday.
Roughly 26 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the five weeks since the pandemic hit, forcing millions of employers to close their doors. About one in six American workers have lost their jobs since mid-March, by far the worst string of layoffs on record.
Economists have forecast that the unemployment rate for April could go as high as 20 percent.
In Massachusetts, about 80,100 residents filed first-time claims. That was down from more than 100,000 in the prior week, but doesn’t include more than 200,000 filings in the past few days by newly eligible recipients such as self-employed and gig workers, according to the state Department of Unemployment Assistance. Those filings, which could not be accepted until the state upgraded its computer systems to handle them, will be reflected in data released April 30.
States that moved quickly to close businesses and tell people to stay at home — including Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California — are seeing the pace of new claims slow, said Luke Tilley, chief economist at Wilmington Trust. In states that were slower to respond, the filings remain more elevated.
The enormous magnitude of job cuts has plunged the US economy into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some economists say the nation’s output could shrink by twice the amount that it did during the Great Recession, which ended in 2009.
Tilley estimated the national jobless rate at 19.6 percent.Unemployment may peak at 24.5 percent by mid-May if most of the country remains locked down, he said.
“It could easily come in below that if there is a successful reopening before 90 days,” Tilley said.
Massachusetts received more than 650,000 new jobless claims in the past five weeks, representing nearly 18 percent of the labor force. That puts the unemployment rate above 20 percent, according to Greg Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute. Sullivan estimated that unemployment in Massachusetts could top 25 percent by June.
The painful economic consequences of the virus-related shutdowns have sparked angry protests in several state capitals, with crowds demanding that businesses reopen. Some governors have begun easing restrictions, despite warnings from health authorities that it may be too soon to do so without sparking new infections. In Georgia, gyms, hair salons and bowling alleys can reopen Friday. Texas has reopened its state parks.
Yet those scattered reopenings won’t lead to much rehiring, especially if Americans are too wary to leave their homes. Most people say they favor stay-at-home orders and believe it won’t be safe to lift social-distancing guidelines anytime soon. And there are probably more layoffs to come at many small businesses that have tried but failed to secure loans from a federal aid program.
The total number of people who are receiving unemployment benefits has reached a record 16 million, surpassing a previous high of 12 million, set in 2010, just after the 2008-2009 recession ended. This figure reflects people who have managed to navigate the online or telephone application systems in their states, have been approved for benefits, and are actually receiving checks.
In some states, many laid-off workers have run into obstacles in trying to apply for benefits. Among them are millions of freelancers, contractors, gig workers, and self-employed people — a category of workers who are now eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time.
“This has been a really devastating shock for a lot of families and small businesses,” said Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota. “It is beyond their control and no fault of their own.”
Just about every major industry has had sudden, severe layoffs. Economists at the Federal Reserve estimate hotels and restaurants have shed the most jobs, 4 million since Feb. 15. That is nearly one-third of all employees in that industry.
Construction has shed more than 9 percent of its jobs. So has a category that includes retail, shipping and utilities, the Fed estimated. A category that is made up of data processing and online publishing has cut 4.7 percent.
When the government issues the April jobs report on May 8, economists expect it to show breathtaking losses. Economists at JPMorgan are predicting a loss of 25 million jobs. That would be nearly triple the total lost during the entire Great Recession period.
A $2 trillion-plus federal relief package signed into law last month made millions of gig workers, contractors and self-employed people newly eligible for aid. But most states have yet to approve unemployment applications from those workers because they’re still trying to reprogram their systems to do so. As a result, many aren’t being counted as laid-off because their applications for unemployment aid are still pending.
Among them is Sasha McVeigh, a musician in Nashville. Having grown up in England with a love of country music, she spent years flying to Nashville to play gigs until she managed to secure a green card and move permanently two years ago. McVeigh had been working steadily until the city shut down music clubs in mid-March.
Since then, she has applied for unemployment benefits but so far has received nothing. To make ends meet, she has applied for grants available to out-of-work musicians, held some live-streaming concerts, and pushed her merchandise sales.
By cutting expenses to a bare minimum, McVeigh said, “I’ve managed to just about keep myself afloat.” But she worries about what will happen over the next few months.
Larry Edelman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.