RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Another grim new record to report this morning, a number that frankly is just astonishing - 6.6 million Americans claimed unemployment benefits last week. That smashed the record for the second week in a row. These numbers are released weekly by the U.S. Department of Labor. In the week ending March 21, 3.28 million claims were filed - so an extraordinary increase in just a week. NPR's Jim Zarroli joins us now to talk through these numbers. Hi, Jim.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What can you tell us about this report?
ZARROLI: Well, it's incredible - 6.6 million new claims. That's just far and away a record. We have never seen anything like that in the history of the Labor Department. Just look at some of the states - they've seen huge surges in new unemployment claims all at one time. I mean, California had 878,000 new claims last week. Pennsylvania had 450,000, Michigan 311,000. These are new claims, so people filing last week for the first time, which means they just lost their jobs.
So there's just an army of people heading to unemployment offices right now. And we're starting to really understand the full impact that this virus is having on the economy. Just a total of 10 million people filing new claims in the past two weeks - that's quite a big number.
MARTIN: I mean, this happened so quickly, too. How are the states handling it?
ZARROLI: Well, they're having a lot of difficulties, you know, because this has happened all at once. One of the problems for them is that Congress has greatly expanded the number of people who qualify for unemployment so that it now includes freelancers and part-timers. You know, the states haven't traditionally included these people, so they don't have the infrastructure in place to deal with them. And they're trying to figure out, you know, how to determine who qualifies. It also means many more people are applying.
California has had so many people applying that it's actually had to reassign people from - the state government has had to reassign people from other departments to process claims, and a lot of them are working nights and weekends.
MARTIN: I mean, it's hard for the people who are making the claims, too, right? I mean, I know someone who spent an entire day - I mean, the phone was just busy when she tried to make a call to her state's unemployment agency.
ZARROLI: Yeah, I also know someone, a young relative of mine, who was laid off in New York and has been on the phone constantly and hasn't been able to get through to the state unemployment offices. It's just taking a lot longer. A lot of people say they can't get anyone on the phone. The lines are always busy.
People talk about calling dozens, if not hundreds, of times and always getting a busy signal. A number of states have seen their computers crash because they can't handle all the people coming into file at once. So you can't file online. So this means a lot of delays. I mean, California is supposed to process claims within 21 days.
ZARROLI: It says it's going to take longer than that. So, you know, people can expect lots of delays.
MARTIN: Tomorrow the Labor Department is supposed to say what happened to the overall unemployment rate in the month of March. I mean, we're going to see an increase, aren't we?
ZARROLI: A big increase. You know, the unemployment rate is the number of people who are out - who don't have jobs and are out actively looking for them. The rate has been very low for a long time. It was 3.5% percent last month. It has almost surely gone up. But we have to say that the survey that they used to calculate how many people are looking for work was done around the second week of March, I believe, and that was before this really big increase in layoffs.
ZARROLI: So whatever we see tomorrow, it's going to be worse for April. The St. Louis Fed says we could see unemployment top 30% before it starts to go down again, although, you know, a lot of economists say that is on the high side; it'll be less
MARTIN: We hope.
ZARROLI: So if we're lucky, the rate will go up but then come down again. But no one really knows when that will be.
MARTIN: Wow. NPR business correspondent Jim Zarroli. Thank you.
ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.