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Friday's Jobs Numbers Will Be Brutal But Won't Tell The Whole Story

A pedestrian walks by a closed shop in Grosse Pointe, Mich., on Thursday. The Labor Department is expected to report on Friday that the U.S. lost millions of jobs last month because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A pedestrian walks by a closed shop in Grosse Pointe, Mich., on Thursday. The Labor Department is expected to report on Friday that the U.S. lost millions of jobs last month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Labor Department is expected to deliver a historically bad employment report Friday, showing millions of jobs lost last month as the jobless rate soared to around 16% — the highest level since the Great Depression.

Unemployment inched up to 4.4% in March as the coronavirus began to take hold in the United States. It approached 25% during the Great Depression and remained elevated until World War II.

As painful as the report for April will be, it won't tell the full story of the economic wreckage left by the coronavirus and the government's drastic efforts to control it.

The report is based on surveys conducted in the middle of April, and claims for jobless benefits suggest that millions of additional jobs have been lost since then. What's more, the headline unemployment figure includes only people who are actively looking for work and those on temporary furlough, ignoring millions more who have been involuntarily idled by the pandemic.

Even with those limitations, the April snapshot will be staggering — a freeze-frame image of an economy that was abruptly and deliberately stopped in its tracks in a desperate bid to slow the spread of a deadly virus.

"The whole world is kind of at a standstill now, so we're feeling the effects of that," said Carmine DiBiase, a longshoreman in Florida whose work loading cruise ships was suspended weeks ago.

The payroll company ADP foreshadowed the carnage earlier this week, reporting that private-sector employers shed more than 20 million jobs last month. By comparison, the worst monthly job loss during the Great Recession was 800,000 in March 2009.

"All the plans for this year went out the window," said David Edwards, who expected to spend the summer guiding people around a zoo in Coal Valley, Ill., that's now shuttered, and working as a mascot for a minor league baseball team whose games have been suspended.

"The two seasonal jobs that I had are both shut down for now," he said. "I feel very scared about my future."

ADP said leisure and hospitality jobs were especially hard hit, but workers in almost every industry suffered layoffs, including retail clerks, construction crews and even health care workers.

Forecasts of the April unemployment rate vary widely — from 14% to 17% or even higher. Even the low end of that range would be well above the postwar peak of 10.8% in 1982 and four times the rate in February, which matched a 50-year low.

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