New Veteran Jobless Data Reveals First Impacts of Pandemic

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A man speaks to a recruiter at a job fair.
Team Edwards member Arman Johnson speaks with a local business representative during a Spouse Employment Job Fair at the Airmen and Family Readiness Center on Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force/Giancarlo Casem)

The unemployment rate for all veterans rose to 4.1% in March, less than the national rate of 4.4% for the month, according to a report Thursday. However, the Labor Department cautioned that it reflects only the early effects of the novel coronavirus epidemic on the jobs market.

The unemployment rate for "Gulf War-era II," or post-9/11 veterans, usually the hardest hit by economic downturns, was also 4.1%, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

The 4.1% rate for all veterans represents a 0.5% increase from the 3.6% increase rate in February. The 4.1% rate for post-9/11 veterans is actually a decrease from the 4.5% recorded in February, BLS added.

In its cautionary note, BLS said that the unemployment rates reported, as always, were based on surveys conducted in the first two weeks of March, before the huge increases in claims for unemployment insurance benefits were recorded.

Related: Record-Breaking Unemployment Signals Hard Times Ahead for Veterans

For the week ending March 28, an unprecedented 6.6 million claims were recorded, BLS said.

As a result, the data for March "predated many coronavirus-related business and school closures that occurred in the second half of the month," it explained.

In March, the overall national unemployment rate, including veterans, increased by 0.9 percentage point to 4.4 percent. "This is the largest over-the-month increase in the rate since January 1975, when the increase was also 0.9 percentage point," BLS said.

It noted that the data from the first weeks of March "reflect some of the early effects of the coronavirus [COVID-19) pandemic on the labor market."

"We cannot precisely quantify the effects of the pandemic on the job market in March," BLS said. "However, it is clear that the decrease in employment and hours and the increase in unemployment can be ascribed to effects of the illness and efforts to contain the virus."

The unemployment rate for all male veterans was 4.0% in March, and 4.3% for female vets, BLS said. For post-9/11 veterans, the rate was 3.7% for men and 6.2% for women.

For Gulf War I-era veterans, those who served from August 1990 to August 2001, the unemployment rate in March was 3.2%. For World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans, it was 4.1%, BLS said.

The standout figure in the data was that the economy lost 701,000 jobs in March, ending a 10-year period of jobs growth as businesses shut down and Americans stayed home. It was the first decline in payrolls since September 2010, according to BLS.

Think tanks and Wall Street are forecasting that the jobs situation will only get worse in the coming months in an economy likely to face a prolonged period of recovery once the pandemic is controlled.

Based on the stunning increase of unemployment insurance claims to 6.6 million in the week ending March 28, and 3.3 million the previous week, the Congressional Budget Office revised its estimates Thursday, projecting a 7% decline in second-quarter Gross Domestic Product and continuing unemployment rates topping 10%.

"CBO expects that the economy will contract sharply during the second quarter of 2020 as a result of the continued disruption of commerce stemming from the spread of the novel coronavirus," CBO Director Phil Swagel said in a posting.

In a release, the Economic Policy Institute projected that "nearly 20 million workers will be laid off or furloughed by July, with losses in every state."

Following its usual practice, the BLS will adjust its figures for March later this month to account for late-arriving data. It will likely report a higher unemployment rate.

The New York Times, based on its own calculations, estimated Friday that the unemployment rate for March was actually in the range of 13%.

From their own discussions with the Labor Department, American Legion officials said they had learned that as many as 10,000 recently separated service members had filed for unemployment in the last two weeks of March.

"I hate to say it, [but] probably we don't have the full scope of it yet," Ariel DeJesus, assistant employment director at the Legion, said of the pandemic's impact on veterans' job prospects.

"Anytime a veteran files for unemployment is concerning to us," said Joe Sharpe, the Legion's employment director, stressing the need for more workshops, job fairs and other forms of assistance for veterans to navigate their way through the downturn.

DeJesus and Sharpe said they are encouraged that the Army last week joined the Navy in offering service members due to separate or retire the option of staying in longer to avoid entering a job market in free fall.

With their commanders' permission, soldiers will be allowed the option of extending their service by three to 11 months, the Army said in statements March 28.

On March 20, in anticipation of a spike in unemployment rates, the Navy began offering six- to 12-month extensions to sailors planning to retire or leave the service.

One of the surprises in the BLS data for March was the decrease in the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans, said Thomas Porter, executive vice president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

"We just don't know what the reason for that is" based on the preliminary data, he said.

Porter added that projections for possible double-digit unemployment rates in the coming months point to the need for Congress to work up another relief package, on top of the recently passed $2 trillion stimulus bill.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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