Nearly 3.2 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as the business shutdowns caused by the viral outbreak deepened the worst U.S. economic catastrophe in decades.

Roughly 33.5 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces. That is the equivalent of one in five Americans who had been employed back in February, when the unemployment rate had reached a 50-year low of just 3.5%.

The Thursday suggests that layoffs, while still breathtakingly high, are steadily declining after sharp spikes in late March and early April.

Initial claims for unemployment aid have now fallen for five straight weeks, from a peak of nearly 6.9 million during the week that ended March 28.

Applications for jobless aid rose in just six states last week, including Maine, New Jersey, and Oklahoma, and declined in the 44 others including Virginia.

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In Virginia, initial jobless claims stood at 59,631 for the week that ended May 2, falling 17.7% from the previous week, the Virginia Employment Commission reported Thursday.

Although the week-over-week decline indicates the volume of claims has retreated from its recent peak, the employment commission said the number of jobless claims filed may not return to pre-pandemic levels for some time. A total of 2,706 claims were filed in the state for the week that ended March 14, before the surge in weekly applications.

In the past seven weeks, more than 625,600 Virginians have filed for unemployment benefits for the first time.

The number of Virginians continuing to seek benefits keeps rising. The week-over-week filings for continued claims rose 10% to 341,295, the commission said.

The Richmond region — Richmond and the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover — had 7,210 initial claims, a week-over-week decline of 13.9%.

In the past seven weeks, the number of claims in the region has soared to 77,139, or roughly 13% of the region’s workforce.

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The report showed that 22.7 million people are now receiving unemployment aid — a rough measure of job losses since the shutdowns began.

That figure lags a week behind the figures for first-time unemployment applications. And not everyone who applies for jobless aid is approved.

The number of laid-off workers receiving aid is now equal to 15.5% of the workforce that’s eligible for unemployment benefits.

Those figures are a rough proxy for the job losses and for the unemployment rate that will be released Friday, which will likely to be the worst since modern record-keeping began after World War II.

The unemployment rate is forecast to reach 16%, the highest rate since the Great Depression, and economists estimate that 21 million jobs were lost last month.

If so, it would mean that nearly all the job growth in the 11 years since the Great Recession ended has vanished in a single month.

Even those stunning figures won’t fully capture the magnitude of the damage the coronavirus has inflicted on the job market. Many people who are still employed have had their hours reduced. Others have suffered pay cuts. Some who lost jobs in April and didn’t look for a new one in light of their bleak prospects won’t even be counted as unemployed. A broader measure — the proportion of adults with jobs — could hit a record low.

The impact has fallen unevenly on the U.S. population, with Hispanics much more likely to suffer an economic hit.

According by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 61% of Hispanics said their household has lost income because of the coronavirus, whether through a layoff, reduced hours or pay cuts. That compares with 46% of blacks and 43% of whites who said so.

Layoffs have also been more concentrated among the less-educated. Twenty-eight percent of Americans without college degrees say they’ve endured a layoff in their household, compared with 19% of people with college degrees.

The official figures for jobless claims may also be under-counting layoffs. Surveys by and suggest that as many as 12 million workers who were laid off by mid-April did not file for unemployment benefits by then, either because they couldn’t navigate their state’s overwhelmed systems or they felt too discouraged to try.

On Thursday, the government also reported how many self-employed, contractors and gig workers, who are newly eligible for jobless benefits, applied for them last week. Nearly 584,000 people did so. The government reported that figure separately because it isn’t adjusted for seasonal patterns, as the 3.2 million figure is.

Business Editor Gregory J. Gilligan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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