Businesswoman leaving office with box of personal items

(CNN) -- The coronavirus pandemic is already costing many people their jobs. The first proof of that came in Thursday morning, when a government report showed weekly jobless claims in the United States spiked to their highest level in two-and-a-half years.

The US Labor Department reported that 281,000 Americans filed for their first week of unemployment benefits in the week ending March 14 — a sudden 70,000 jump from the week before, and 60,000 claims more than economists had expected. It marked the highest level in initial claims since the week ending September 2, 2017, when claims spiked in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Last week's sudden increase is "clearly attributable to impacts from the COVID-19 virus," the Department of Labor said in release.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the US job market was on strong footing and initial unemployment insurance claims had been hovering between roughly 210,000 and 230,000 a week.

The sudden jump marked a 33% increase, the biggest increase in percentage terms since 1992, and "bigger than anything we saw during the Great Recession," noted Heidi Shierholz, senior economist for the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist for the US Department of Labor.

Meanwhile, 1.7 million Americans filed for continued claims (their second week of unemployment benefits or more) in the week ending March 7. That number was barely changed from the week before, reflecting the strong US labor market before the pandemic accelerated.

This number is also expected to jump in the near term.

The number of jobless claims will get more and more attention in the months to come as it is published on a weekly basis, tracking the real economy much more closely than monthly or quarterly government data, which is published with a longer lag.

Layoffs are expected to worsen significantly as the coronavirus crisis is forcing businesses to readjust.

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