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Photo essay: What unemployment looks like in pandemic America

July 24, 2020, 5:40 PM UTC
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UNITED STATES - JULY 22: Demonstrators rally near the Capitol Hill residence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to call for the extension of unemployment benefits on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. The benefit, created by the CARES Act, is set to expire on July 31. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

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The numbers tell one story. Following an almost unimaginable spike to 6.9 million new unemployment claims in late March, the number of unemployed Americans has gradually settled to around 1.4 million new claims per week.

Prior to the pandemic, claims had never been above 700,000. But that still puts the unemployment rate at 11.1%—higher than the Great Recession peak. While some states have been spared the worst (Montana and Wyoming), others that depend heavily on tourism (Nevada, Florida, and Hawaii) have sustained brutal economic trauma that have many wondering when—and if—the jobs will ever come back. We know already that the pain has not been spread evenly, with Black Americans seeing a much higher spike in unemployment than other groups. Meanwhile with the extra $600 in weekly federal unemployment benefits scheduled to expire (Congress is weighing options for an extension or replacement), and the federal moratorium on evictions ending July 25, many economists fear American families are about to fall off a financial cliff.

And that’s a story the numbers don’t tell. The worry, and fear, and hope, and sense of loss facing those Americans who plunged from one of the tightest job markets in history, into one of the most bleak. They’re braving long lines to register for unemployment. Navigating slow and faulty state systems. Risking their own health to look for work. Wondering whether they’ll be able to work at all if schools don’t reopen in the fall. Joining protests to implore legislators to extend extra federal benefits. They are worried about their future, they’re worried about their health, they’re worried about their kids, and they’re worried about their country. 

Here’s what that looks like, as the pandemic of unemployment spreads across the country.

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Special events workers who were forced out of their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic march in Salt Lake City on July 21.
Rick Bowmer—AP Images
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Protesters ask senators to support the continuation of unemployment benefits on July 16 in Miami Springs, Fla.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images
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Jmal Adame (at right) hands out information packets on open positions at a drive-thru job fair in Omaha on July 15, 2020. Nebraska reinstated a job-search requirement for most people claiming unemployment benefits.
Nati Harnik—AP Images
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Micah Barnett (left), a former cook left jobless in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is helped by Jim Polly (bottom right) from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission at Expo Square in Tulsa, on July 15.
Matt Barnard—Tulsa World/AP Images
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A man fills out paperwork while waiting for his number to be called at a job fair in Tulsa on July 15.
Nick Oxford—The Washington Post/Getty Images
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Volunteers prepare boxes of food for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida at City of Destiny church on July 6. The demand for food persists in the Orlando area, owing to the large numbers of service workers and others who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Paul Hennessy—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
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People line up outside the Kentucky Career Center in Frankfort prior to its opening to get assistance with their unemployment claims on June 18.
Bryan Woolston—Reuters
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Hundreds of unemployed Kentucky residents wait in long lines outside the Kentucky Career Center in Frankfort on June 19 for help with their unemployment claims.
John Sommers II—Getty Images
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Gail Norman participates in a die-in protest on May 22 in Miami Beach, asking the State of Florida to fix its unemployment benefits system.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images
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Signs hang from the Meridian Heights apartment building in Washington, D.C., on May 18, 2020.
Caroline Brehman—CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
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Tatiana Fernández distributes unemployment documents to residents of Miami-Dade County in Hialeah, Fla., on April 7.
Matias J. Ocner—Miami Herald/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Text by Lee Clifford. Photo editor: Alex Scimecca. Additional reporting by Lance Lambert.

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