Virus Outbreak Massachusetts

In this May 9 photo, a sign announces the closure of the Massachusetts Unemployment Office n Boston. Nearly 3 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week.

WASHINGTON — Nearly 3 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week as the viral outbreak forced more companies to slash jobs even though most states have begun to let some businesses reopen.

Roughly 36 million people have now sought jobless aid in just the two months since the coronavirus first forced businesses to close down and shrink their workforces, the government said Thursday. An additional 842,000 people applied for aid last week through a separate program for self-employed and gig workers.

All told, the figures point to a job market gripped by its worst crisis in decades and an economy that is sinking into a deep downturn. The pace of new applications for aid has declined over the past several weeks but is still four times the record high that prevailed before the coronavirus struck hard in March.

The waves of job cuts have heightened concerns that additional government aid, on top of the nearly $3 trillion already allocated, is necessary to sustain the economy. Without another aid package, many economists worry that thousands of small businesses will go bankrupt, leaving millions of the unemployed with no job to return to. And state and local governments, facing huge revenue shortfalls, could be forced to lay off millions more workers and cut services.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell this week stressed his belief that Congress should consider providing additional rescue money to avoid prolonging an economic catastrophe.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits actually rose last week in Georgia, as well as in Florida, which has also started to reopen. In Florida, that increase likely reflects a troubled system that caused a belated processing of claims that had been filed earlier.

A few other states that have lifted some restrictions, like South Carolina and Texas, reported declines in jobless claims.