More than 5.2 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week, new federal figures showed Thursday, raising the nationwide total to 21.7 million in the four weeks since the U.S. economy came to an abrupt halt in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

One of every five Pennsylvania workers has now filed for assistance, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor, as the economic wreckage from the coronavirus cascades across the country.

The 5.2 million new claims filed nationwide represents a decline of 1.4 million from the previous week, suggesting that the dramatic surge in joblessness is slowing. But the sheer number of new jobless claims is breathtaking, rivaling the worst economic collapses of the 20th century.

In Pennsylvania, 238,357 workers filed new jobless claims last week, the lowest in four weeks, but a volume that is still more than 10 times the number of claims the state Department of Labor and Industry received in a typical pre-coronavirus week.

That brings the state’s total new jobless claims to more than 1.3 million in four weeks ending April 11, or almost 20% of the workforce. An additional 84,000 people filed claims in the first three days of this week, according to the state, pushing the total higher than 21%.

In New Jersey, 140,600 workers filed new claims. The Garden State’s four-week total now stands at 677,000, or almost 15% of the workforce.

The unprecedented job losses came after governors ordered a halt to all but “life-sustaining” businesses — including much of the retail sector, most construction, and nearly all of the leisure and personal-services industry — in a desperate bid to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. The impact turned cities and suburban malls into ghost towns, inflicting collateral damage even on sectors permitted to operate.

Federal and state political leaders are now debating how and when to reopen the economy without putting the public at risk. The unemployment numbers, coming the day after the Commerce Department reported an 8.7% drop in retail spending last month, are likely to propel that debate.

The huge surge in joblessness has overwhelmed Pennsylvania’s Office of Unemployment Compensation, which was understaffed and underfunded even before the crisis. The state has encouraged claimants frustrated with the slow response to be patient while the system catches up, but discontent and expressions of pain have erupted on social media as unemployed workers relate stories about jammed phone lines, dropped web chats, and anxiety about overdue bills.

“This is infuriating,” said Ted Kelly, an organizer for the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, a nonprofit that advocates for workers. “The system was already in a state of collapse before this pandemic hit, and now the crisis has just revealed it to be in a state of complete collapse.”

The Office of Unemployment Compensation has brought back 70 retired employees, taken on 18 workers from other state agencies, and hired 100 new employees to answer emails and to work in call centers, said Jahmai Sharp, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry.

“It’s simply a matter of volume,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry Jerry Oleksiak told reporters on Monday. “We are doing all we can, we want to get back to these people. We want to let them know, we want to get them their benefits.”

“I just think that they’re giving this false sense of like we’re fixing the system,” said Shannon Darcy, 31, who was laid off on March 15 from her job as a bartender and server at Condesa, a Center City restaurant. She was so exasperated with filing her unemployment claim that she organized an online petition to encourage elected leaders to reform the state system. More than 1,500 people have signed on.

Joseph Andino, 37, a sous chef at City Tap House in University City, received initial communication from the unemployment office in March after he was laid off, but not the crucial PIN number he needs to collect the benefits. He has been unable to get through to the state on the phone to resolve the problems. Meanwhile, his wife, Sandra, who also works in food services, was also laid off this month.

“Without the PIN and without being able to speak to anyone, I’ve been left in limbo," said Andino. “We are getting desperate and I don’t know what to do.” His landlord allowed him to apply some of his security deposit toward the April rent, but there’s no relief for next month’s rent.

Some unemployment advocates expressed sympathy for state officials.

“It’s as though you had an under-funded army and then you said, ‘All right, guys, go to battle,’” said Sharon M. Dietrich, litigation director of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

Dietrich said she did not mean to diminish the suffering of claimants who are waiting for checks. “But I think that department is doing an extraordinarily good job in light of all of these challenges,” she said.

State officials hope that some of the frustration will begin to ease this week as unemployment claimants receive the first increased unemployment benefits authorized under the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus economic relief package enacted last month.

The weekly supplemental $600 payments apply to the week ending April 4 through July 25, and are paid separately from the biweekly benefit. Workers who have already filed unemployment claims do not need to reapply for the added benefit.

The payments come on top of the onetime $1,200 direct payments for people earning $75,000 or less that began to flow into bank accounts this week, also authorized under the stimulus package.

In the last four weeks, the Pennsylvania unemployment office has issued 1.6 million payments totaling almost $598 million, Sharp said. Unemployment claims are paid not only to workers who lost their job, but also those whose hours were reduced because of the pandemic response.

The department did not respond to questions about the number of applicants who have been approved for benefits, or the number of claims denied.

Nicole DeJessa, 40, whose claim was denied after she was laid off March 15 from her job as a server at a Center City restaurant, learned the hard way about the arcane and legalistic way that unemployment benefits are calculated. And now she can’t get through on the state’s phone lines to fix the problem.

Nicole DeJessa, her husband, Benjamin Satlow (who is still working), their 18-month old son, Raphael, and daughter Nina, 8. DeJessa, a restaurant server, is one of 1.3 million Pennsylvanians who have filed for unemployment claims and is frustrated dealing with the state system.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Nicole DeJessa, her husband, Benjamin Satlow (who is still working), their 18-month old son, Raphael, and daughter Nina, 8. DeJessa, a restaurant server, is one of 1.3 million Pennsylvanians who have filed for unemployment claims and is frustrated dealing with the state system.

DeJessa had taken maternity leave at the end of 2018 and for much of last year to have her second child, Raphael. She resumed work in July, but only a few weeks of employment counted in the state’s calculation of a base year, which takes into account only the first four calendar quarters of the previous five full quarters — in her case, the last quarter of 2018, and the first nine months of 2019.

So her claim was denied.

If she had filed for unemployment in April, the base year would have included the fourth quarter of 2019, when restaurants are busy and patrons are generous with holiday gratuities. And that could have tipped the calculus in her favor.

“I haven't been able to get through to anyone at the unemployment office,” said DeJessa, whose husband, Benjamin Satlow, is still working for a caterer with corporate clients. “And nobody is at the unemployment office on Saturday when I'm able to get time in front of the computer. It’s so frustrating.”

Friends suggested she avoid a formal appeal, but instead file a new claim now that her fourth-quarter earnings would count. She thinks it may be best to resubmit the existing claim. She’d like some guidance from the state because a misstep can cost thousands of dollars — and valuable time.

“It’s just been such a crazy time,” she said. “I feel like everybody’s doing the best that they can. But it’s a system that is is designed to say no to people almost by default.”

Staff Writer Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.