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Virus pushes US unemployment toward highest since Depression

Roughly 26 million people — the population of the 10 biggest U.S. cities combined — have now filed for jobless aid in five weeks. Unemployment is considered likely to remain elevated well into next year and probably beyond. (Reporting DAVID CRARY, AP)

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Unemployment in the U.S. is swelling to levels last seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s, with 1 in 6 American workers thrown out of a job by the coronavirus.

More than 4.4 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week, the government said Thursday. In all, roughly 26 million people — the population of the 10 biggest U.S. cities combined — have now filed for jobless aid in five weeks, an epic collapse that has raised the stakes in the debate over how and when to lift the state-ordered stay-at-home restrictions that have closed factories and other businesses from coast to coast.

In the hardest-hit corner of the U.S., evidence emerged that perhaps more than 2 million New Yorkers have been infected by the virus — several times higher than the number confirmed by lab tests.

A small, preliminary statewide survey of around 3,000 people found that 13.9% had antibodies suggesting they had been exposed, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. Just in New York City, with a population of 8.6 million, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said many as 1 million may have been exposed.

Huge lines have formed at food banks from El Paso, Texas, to the Paris suburbs, and food shortages are hitting Africa especially hard.

The coronavirus has killed over 184,000 people worldwide, including about 47,000 in the United States, according to a tally compiled by John Hopkins University from official government figures. The true numbers are almost certainly far higher.

In the U.S., the economic consequences of the shutdowns have sparked angry rallies in state capitals by protesters demanding that businesses reopen, and President Donald Trump has expressed impatience over the restrictions. Some governors have begun easing up 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.

Few experts foresee a downturn as severe as the Depression, when unemployment remained above 14% from 1931 to 1940, peaking at 25%. But unemployment is considered likely to remain elevated well into next year and probably beyond, and will surely top the 10% peak of the 2008-09 recession.

Corey Williams, 31, was laid off from his warehouse job in Michigan a month ago and saw his rent, insurance, and other bills pile up while he anxiously awaited his unemployment benefits. That finally happened on Wednesday, and he quickly paid $1,700 in bills.

“It was getting pretty tight, pretty tight,” he said. “It was definitely stressful for the last few days.”

Virus pushes US unemployment toward highest since Depression

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