The Coronavirus outbreak has hit the economy hard, as restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality industries — among many others — have either mostly or entirely shuttered in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus. Schools, live events — they’re all closed or closing, in many cases at the orders of authorities. The New York Times now reports that the Trump administration’s Labor Department has asked states to withhold their unemployment claims figures from the general public, at least until the next national update next Thursday. Fears include a potential further impact on the already plummeting stock market.
Although precise national figures aren’t currently available, it’s clear that the unemployment situation is dire. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, for instance, recently “told lawmakers that unemployment could reach 20 percent this year,” The Times notes. That’s obviously an astronomical projection.
The Labor Department’s Gay Gilbert, who works as the administrator of the Office of Employment Insurance, insisted that states should only “provide information using generalities to describe claims levels (very high, large increase)” for the time being. She added, more bluntly:
‘States should not provide numeric values to the public.’
She noted, as mentioned, that “the reports were monitored closely by financial markets and should therefore remain embargoed,” as The Times summarizes.
The publication obtained a copy of her email from a concerned governor’s office, which they do not identify. That same office reportedly sought input from their state’s attorney general on whether or not Gilbert’s demand to withhold unemployment figures had legal force. Gilbert, for what its worth, is reportedly a career official at the Labor Department rather than a political Trump appointee, suggesting that perhaps the email was not sent under direct political pressure, although she certainly didn’t send it in a vacuum. The Times adds that Trump “has privately expressed irritation at the dire predictions of some of his advisers,” including the dismal numbers that Mnuchin shared with members of Congress.
Numbers that have already emerged are pretty terrible. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state had received 180,000 unemployment insurance claims in the last few days alone, which state official Robert O’Brien shared was “far more” than the ordinary tally of state claims across an entire month. Meanwhile, in Washington, after a 150 percent increase in unemployment claims the week before, officials did not release exact numbers but they said they’re experiencing an “even more dramatic increase this week” in unemployment claims. Federally, “281,000 people nationwide applied for unemployment insurance last week, up from 211,000 the previous week,” The Times reports, and the numbers appear to be only further increasing.
The Senate is currently negotiating over a plan to help offset the effects of that economic upheaval via direct payments to many Americans. An initial Republican version of the plan features $1,200 payments to individual Americans who earn less than $75,000 annually, as measured by 2018 tax returns. That initial plan also includes bailout money for hard-hit business sectors like airlines and small businesses, and it also includes provisions like deferring requirements for student loan payments and an extension of the tax filing deadline.