By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - A wave of layoffs at restaurants, bars and hotels, as efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic bring much of everyday American life to a halt, could drive new applications for U.S. unemployment benefits to a record 1.5 million or more next week, economists warned on Thursday.
New jobless claims already hit a two-and-a-half year high of 281,000 last week, jumping by 70,000 from the week before, the Labor Department said on Thursday. It was the biggest weekly increase since 2012 and officials laid the blame on the coronavirus, which a Reuters tally shows has infected nearly 9,500 across the country, killing at least 115.
And the worst is yet to come.
Economists said their own tracking of data from individual states suggests claims could shoot up to at least 1.5 million this week. Data for the week ending March 21 will be published next Thursday.
"State filings offices for Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut report claims filings this week are running six to 14 times higher than the same week last year," said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York.
"A quarter of all claims filings are in two states, New York and California. Given the preliminary reports for a few states, next Thursday's unemployment claims report could show an initial claims reading north of 1.5 million."
This estimate, which other economists agreed with, would far outpace the previous record of 695,000 set in 1982. During the week ended March 14, unadjusted initial claims soared 14,000 in California and jumped 9,000 in Washington state, which has been hardest hit by the coronavirus. They increased 7,000 in Nevada.
"Last week's jump in claims is likely to look minor in comparison to what lies ahead," said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.
According to Well Fargo Securities' tracking, Ohio reported 36,645 unemployment claims were filed on Monday. This was in addition to 11,995 filed on Sunday. Ohio received only 562 applications the previous Sunday.
"Massachusetts reported 19,884 claims filed on Monday alone, more than the total received in February, while Pennsylvania reported 50,000 claims on Monday and even more than that on Tuesday," said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Many states reported that their employment websites crashed due to a surge in traffic, suggesting demand for unemployment benefits is even higher than the reported figures."
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Burns and Bernadette Baum)
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