Tips, money collected from a customer donation fund and a last paycheck for employees laid off from Farley’s East cafe, that closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, sits on a counter at the cafe in Oakland, California, March 18, 2020.
Tips, money collected from a customer donation fund and a last paycheck for employees laid off from Farley’s East cafe, that closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, sits on a counter at the cafe in Oakland, California, March 18, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Claims for unemployment compensation surged in the United States last week as the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that 281,000 workers made new jobless benefit claims, up 70,000 from the week before. The new figure was the highest in two and a half years.

Economists are predicting that more than a million U.S. workers could lose their jobs by the end of March.

Hourly wage workers in retail stores, at hotels and in restaurants are expected to be particularly vulnerable to the coming layoffs linked to voluntary business shutdowns or those ordered by state and local governments to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

An empty store is seen near Times Square following the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City, March 18, 2020.

Individual states are reporting huge increases in claims for unemployment insurance benefits, which typically provide only a stopgap sum of money for the jobless, not anywhere near what workers would have been paid from regular employment.

The Atlantic coast state of Virginia saw a 33-fold increase in jobless benefit claims this week, while the eastern state of Pennsylvania and the western state of Colorado reported 20 times the normal number of claims.

Many governments – federal, state and local – and businesses have closed their offices and ordered their employees to work from home.

U.S. consumer spending, which accounts for 70% of the world’s biggest economy, is expected to dip as people worry about contact with strangers who may have contracted the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, key New York stock indexes edged ahead in afternoon trading Thursday, a day after massive losses virtually erased the gains that had accrued since President Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017.

Asian markets dropped a percentage point or two Thursday, while European indexes closed up about 2%.