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There are likely more unemployed Americans right now than at any time in history

April 3, 2020, 9:11 PM UTC

We may be staring down the highest levels of joblessness, ever.

A total of 7.1 million Americans were unemployed in March, up 1.4 million from last month, according to data published Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the actual number of Americans out of work is far greater, given that report is through March 13—before the unprecedented wave of layoffs. In the two weeks ended March 21 and March 28, the country saw a combined 10 million initial unemployment claims.

If you combine the number of Americans unemployed in the March jobs report and the following two weeks of unemployment claims, then the unemployed total sits above 17 million—a number more massive than the Great Recession’s peak of 14.7 million in June 2009. In fact, 17 million unemployed Americans would be the highest level in the country’s history.

“The March unemployment numbers are old and do not reflect what is happening now in the labor market,” says Ryan Sweet, an economist at Moody’s Analytics. “There are a lot more unemployed than it is showing…If you tack on [unemployment] claims the past two weeks, the number is above 17 million unemployed.”

The March jobs report numbers were tallied before a wave of states started closing down nonessential businesses, including New York’s order to shutter them on March 20. Following those shutdowns, 3.3 million initial unemployed claims rolled in the week ended March 21—topping the weekly claims record of 695,000 in October 1982. That record was eclipsed again the week ended March 28, with its 6.6 million initial unemployment claims. But that 10 million figure is likely an understatement—given that states are struggling to process the rush of claims.

This record-level number of out-of-work Americans should appear in April’s job numbers. And the current unemployment rate of 4.4%—up from 3.5% in February—will likely reach double digits in April, experts say. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes Americans as unemployed only if they’re out of a job and also seeking work. Some recently laid-off Americans, Sweet says, may wait to look for a new job given current stay-at-home orders. If so, those unemployed workers would be excluded from the unemployed totals.

The bottom line? “The economy ran into a brick wall in March…in a way we’ve never seen before,” Sweet says.

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
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