• More than 47 million Americans could lose their jobs in the second quarter amid the coronavirus pandemic, sending the unemployment rate to 32%, according to a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
  • In a previous analysis, the Fed estimated that nearly 67 million Americans work in occupations that are at high risk of layoffs due to social distancing measures.
  • The study was released just before weekly jobless claims data released Thursday showed record layoffs in the week ending March 21.
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Unemployment could skyrocket to a record high as the coronavirus pandemic puts millions of Americans out of work, according to a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

As many as 47 million Americans could be subject to layoffs in the second quarter, which added to the amount laid off in February would mean 52.81 million people unemployed. That would send the unemployment rate to a massive 32% according to the study published March 24.

“These are very large numbers by historical standards,” wrote Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis economist Miguel Faria-e-Castro in a blog post about his “back of the envelope” calculations for the labor market going forward. “But this is a rather unique shock that is unlike any other experienced by the US economy in the last 100 years.”

The US unemployment rate in February was 3.5%. If it surged to 30% in the second quarter, it would top the highest rate on record of nearly 25% during the Great Depression.

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The study came just before weekly US jobless claims data released on Thursday spiked to a record 3.28 million for the week ending March 21. The weekly report of Americans who had filed for unemployment insurance was one of the first indicators of just how bad the coronavirus pandemic could be.

Faria-e-Castro began his analysis working from a previous Fed report that nearly 67 million Americans work in occupations that are at high risk of layoffs due to social distancing measures, such as those in sales, production, and food services. Another report also accounted for 27.3 million workers in contact-intensive positions such as barbers, hairstylists, and flight attendants, who may be at risk during the outbreak.

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Faria-e-Castro averaged the two groups for an estimate of 47 million layoffs in the second quarter. He said that there are a number of caveats to his analysis. First, he did not include those who might be discouraged and not seeking another job, thus lowering the unemployment count in the second quarter.

He also said that businesses may send workers home with pay instead of laying them off. In addition, his analysis did not include the impact of any government stimulus recently passed, which will support small businesses and expand unemployment benefits.

Still, it’s expected that weekly jobless claims will continue to be elevated at never-before-seen highs as coronavirus-induced layoffs persist. In addition, a majority of economists are forecasting a US recession this year, which could become a depression if the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

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