California unemployment claims surged to 879,000 last week

Margot Roosevelt
Unionized hospitality workers wait in line in a basement garage to apply for unemployment benefits at the Hospitality Training Academy in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

California unemployment claims surged to a record level last week, with at least 878,727 people reporting lost jobs, as the coronavirus’ economic toll engulfed the state.

The Golden State’s claims rose to more than double those of any other state.

The skyrocketing number for the week ending March 28 far surpassed the previous week’s 186,333 claims, but even that is likely to grow. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that 1.6 million Californians have filed claims since March 13, including a record 150,000 on Monday alone.

Last week’s extraordinary jump came as the U.S. reported a record 6.6 million claims nationwide last week, up from 3.3 million the previous week. “This marks the highest level of seasonally adjusted initial claims in the history of the seasonally adjusted series,” which began in 1967, the federal Labor Department reported.

California’s more than three-fold rise was far faster than the nation’s doubling. The next highest claims reports were in Pennsylvania (405,880) and New York (366,403).

The Golden State’s claims last week “far outpace any number during the Great Recession, and in fact any number since World War II,” said Michael Bernick, a former director of the state’s Employment Development Department who tracks employment data.

“To put in some perspective, for the week of March 7, just three weeks ago, a total of 43,385 initial claims were filed in California,” he said.

The state has struggled to keep pace with the surge, as its website has repeatedly crashed and state workers processing claims have been overwhelmed. Laid-off workers say they are unable to reach the agency by phone. The department’s call center is open just four hours a day Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon.

”I know many people are relying on unemployment insurance now,” California Labor Secretary Julie Su tweeted last week. “The state is mobilizing every level of government to respond to #COVID19, making decisions to rise to the moment.” She ordered the department to streamline its claims approval process and “exercise flexibility.”

The state is unable to accurately track the number of companies laying off workers since Gov. Gavin Newsom absolved employers from a requirement to warn workers and government officials 60 days in advance of mass layoffs. As of March 25, just 139 businesses had reported laying off 18,998 employees.

California’s unemployment rate was 3.9% in February, and the nation’s stood at 3.5%, a 50-year low. The new federal claims report suggests the jobless rate may have reached 10% at the end of March.

Economists are suggesting that as many as 25 million Americans or more could lose their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least temporarily. That would surpass the 15.3 million who lost work during the Great Recession.