Economy Dismal, Recovery Pace Unclear : Politics Podcast : The NPR Politics Podcast 5.2 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the four-week total to 22 million — nearly wiping out all the job gains made since the Great Recession.

Retail spending, another key economic indicator, is also suffering: down a record 8.7% last month, the largest monthly fall since the Commerce Department began tracking retail sales three decades ago.

This episode: political correspondent Scott Detrow, political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

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Unemployment Claims Remain Sky-High, All But Undoing 10 Years Of Job Gains

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Unemployment Claims Remain Sky-High, All But Undoing 10 Years Of Job Gains

Unemployment Claims Remain Sky-High, All But Undoing 10 Years Of Job Gains

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/836439572/836482935" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY: Hi. This is Kelly (ph) from Chicago, where spring has finally started to arrive, and the frogs are waking up in my neighborhood. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

I thought this was going to be like, I'm doing research in the rainforest, but no. She's in Chicago.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: It's - I love it. It's 2:11 Eastern on Thursday, April 16.

(SOUNDBITE OF FROGS CROAKING)

KELLY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: That was so peaceful and stirring. I just want to listen to those frogs.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Can we keep that running for the whole podcast? That's as calm as I've been in weeks. That was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF FROGS CROAKING)

DETROW: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I'm covering the White House.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: I'm Scott Horsley. I cover the economy.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I also cover the economy.

DETROW: And maybe we were all so soothed by that frog because the economic picture that we're going to talk about today is not soothing. It's not pretty. In fact, it is another grim week. Five million more people filed for unemployment benefits. Danielle, Scott, we've been doing these weekly economic check-ins the last few weeks. Since we last talked to you, have things gotten better or worse or about the same on the economic front?

HORSLEY: Boy, that's a - you know, it's hard to say things are getting better when you have more than 5 million people filing for unemployment. But if there's any ray - thin ray of sunshine in that picture, it's a little bit fewer than filed the last two weeks.

DETROW: Yeah.

HORSLEY: We had 6.8 million two weeks ago, 6.6 million the week after that. And now we're down to 5.2 million. But the cumulative job loss that those numbers represent is really bleak.

KURTZLEBEN: It's the difference between horrific or a hair less horrific, maybe. I mean, also, a thing to keep in mind, as I know we've talked about, is that you have a lot of people who aren't able to get through at state unemployment agencies or who haven't been able to get through. So it's hard to tell exactly what these numbers mean right now, what - how much of a - more of a backlog we're going to be looking at, how many more people might be laid off. There's so much unknown right now.

HORSLEY: But one thing you can say, Scott, is over the last four weeks now, we have had something like 22 million people file claims for unemployment. That's about as many jobs as we added in the whole decade since the Great Recession. So we've had a decade worth of job gains basically washed away in just four weeks.

DETROW: And I feel like we've had this conversation a lot of times about one of the unique things about this being just how sudden it all was - just, you know, all of the jobs going away at once. But a decade's worth of job growth gone in less than a month - I mean, is there any precedent for that ever?

KURTZLEBEN: No.

HORSLEY: No. No, there's not. I mean, usually, even when you had massive events like the Great Depression of the 1930s, they played out over a period of time. This is unprecedented because, again, it's a deliberate policy choice we've made to basically slam the door shut on much of the economy because we're trying to slow the spread of this pandemic, and that's never been done before.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DETROW: You guys mentioned that this is fewer unemployment claims filed than the weeks before. But, Danielle, you mentioned people are still having a hard time getting through, even getting their claims in to begin with. Do we have any sense when the numbers will stop lagging, when we'll have a sense of, OK, this is the economic picture right now?

KURTZLEBEN: I have to be honest. I don't know of how we would know that. But what I do know is that, you know, I've been talking to people over the last week or so, you know, who have lost work, and some of them have not yet even applied for unemployment. Not only do you have people who have not gotten through. You of some who have not applied who - for a variety of reasons.

And also, I mean, one thing to keep in mind is that, yes, the job market has gone entirely off a cliff. So many things have. And one thing we're going to see in the coming weeks and months is how people adapt to this. Like, for example, you do have some people who are finding other work. I spoke to a man named Theodore Johnson. Prior to all of this, he was a massage therapist, and he worked at a big, fancy hotel. And now he lost all of his hours, and he has started working an overnight shift at a nearby Amazon warehouse.

THEODORE JOHNSON: Every - literally every day was just, like, touch-and-go. Like, what am I going to do next? Like, what's going to happen next? Like, you know, the uncertainty is just pretty real. So I just jumped on the job that's, like, 45 minutes away overnight. And it's just, like, kind of brutal, but it's not terrible. It's been an adjustment for sure.

KURTZLEBEN: I asked him, you know, how this compares to his last job. And he said, you know, I'm making about as much money, but I'm working many more hours, in some cases up to 60 hours a week. Also, it's overnight. And also, there are just smaller things that maybe aren't life-shattering but just surreal about the experience. He told me, you know, he's been working at this new job, and he doesn't really know his new co-workers because there are strict social distancing guidelines in place to keep them safe and healthy. But he - you know, he can't talk to his new co-workers a whole lot. And there are just so many small details like this in all of these stories that really hammer home how difficult this all is on a human level, not just on a bank account level.

HORSLEY: Amazon's one of the unusual companies that has actually been hiring during this period. Obviously, a lot of people are doing their shopping online and getting things delivered to their door. And Amazon initially said they were going to hire 100,000 people. They've filled those jobs, and now they've said this week they're going to hire another 75,000. And they are billing these as kind of a temporary stopgap job for people who might be out of work in whatever their chosen profession is. For somebody like a massage therapist, though, you have to wonder, you know, when are people going to be able to go back to that kind of work in our current environment?

DETROW: Do we have a sense at this point about how widespread the job losses are? Because early on, they were targeted to individual sectors - travel, things like that. At this point, is it across the board?

HORSLEY: The categories are pretty widespread, although when you look at the sort of color commentary that the states provide along with their initial unemployment claims, we're still seeing pretty hard hit industries, like restaurants and bars, retail shops. Those are still definitely being hard hit, but it's not limited to those by any means.

And the longer this goes on, of course, the more you're going to see ancillary services that supply those businesses being hit. For example, a number of states reported a surge in waste management layoffs. Obviously if restaurants have closed their doors, if retail shops aren't functioning, if people aren't going to the offices, there's a lot of dumpsters that don't need to be emptied. And so there's been a lot of layoffs in that sector. Business services are going to take a hit. We saw in the March unemployment numbers even health care, which is usually a pretty stable field, is seeing job losses. Anyone who's not on the frontlines actually caring for coronavirus patients - regular doctor's offices have largely shut down, dentist offices. Hospitals aren't doing elective surgeries. So even in that field, people are losing work.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk a little bit more about how retail specifically has been hit, and we're going to talk about how some of the federal response is going.

And we're back. And our colleague Alina Selyukh had a story yesterday with the headline - I'm just going to read it - Retail Spending Just Fell Off a Cliff. Now, I'm not on the business desk like you are, but to me, that seems like a very bad thing.

KURTZLEBEN: Yep, you're right (laughter).

HORSLEY: Falling off a cliff is usually bad. Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, retail sales in March, last month, they fell by 8.7%. That is a new record in retail sales declines. I mean, it breaks the record of around 4% that was hit during the Great Recession. So yeah, this is more than double the biggest drop that we've had.

HORSLEY: And of course, retail sales are a huge part of the economy. They account for about two-thirds of our total economic activity. This is why you're seeing all those retail workers getting furloughed or laid off. And again, it's a result of the deliberate policy choice to have most of those retail shops close their doors. Now, it's not as if people suddenly lost interest in buying clothes or buying furniture or buying cars. But they're not doing that. They're staying home. They're staying out of the mall. They are buying online, and they are buying at grocery stores in great volume.

DETROW: Yeah.

HORSLEY: But the rest of the retail industry has really tanked.

DETROW: So one of the things the federal government did to try and help with this, to try and help with all the job loss, was sending out checks or direct deposits to people. That money started to show up for a lot of people this week. And it's going to be rolling out depending on how you filed your taxes and things like that going forward. Another thing the federal government was doing is this small business loan program. Danielle, you've been following that. How's it been working?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, it depends on who you are. If you're a small business who filed for it, who applied for it and who got your money, which isn't a whole lot of them, then it's going OK. But yeah, I mean, there are two things to talk about here. One is whether you got your money and whether you were able to apply because many banks were requiring that you were a preexisting customer before you applied. So plenty of people were not able to apply because they didn't have those preexisting banking relationships.

Now, aside from that, the big news today is that the roughly $350 billion appropriated for the program has run out. Now, this is not unexpected. This is a thing that from the start of this program, from the moment it was created in that CARES Act that - the economic relief act that Congress passed - experts have been saying that's going to run out pretty quick. And it has in less than two weeks. So that is the big news.

Now, the question is what to do. Now, there is bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill that, yes, lawmakers want to appropriate more money. Now the question is what strings to attach or not attach. Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, they want to change the program to make sure that businesses who haven't been able to get their hands on this money have a better chance of doing it. They also want to appropriate funds to other areas like state and local governments, hospitals. Republicans, on the other hand, say, look; let's just get it out. Just put more money into the program. That is roughly the two parties' positions here.

HORSLEY: So as we come towards the end of this week, it is a little bit frustrating here. There is this small business loan program for which there is obviously huge demand. They've burned through $350 billion in a couple of weeks. And there is going to be a lot of finger pointing on Capitol Hill - or remotely on Capitol Hill - by lawmakers. I do think there's a lot of incentive in both the Republican and Democratic parties to preserve small businesses. Democrats and Republicans both have small business people in their districts. And after a certain amount of horse trading and arm twisting, I suspect they will, in fact, top this up, and there will be more money to help small businesses and the people who work for them.

DETROW: All right. I'm going to be honest. That was a pretty bleak conversation at times. It was the type of conversation that makes me look forward to Can't Let It Go, which we will do tomorrow at the end of our weekly roundup. And we're going to try something new. We're going to have what you can't let go of as well. Listeners have been sending in submissions to nprpolitics@npr.org. And we're going to play some of them in the show tomorrow. Until then, you can head to npr.org/politicsnewsletter to subscribe to a weekly roundup of our best online analysis. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

HORSLEY: I'm also Scott - Horsley. I cover the economy.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. And I also cover the economy.

DETROW: Big week for Scotts on the podcast.

KURTZLEBEN: Aw, man.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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