You know the world is deeply off-kilter when it’s considered an act of compassionate mercy for a CEO to temporarily kick thousands of workers off of the company’s payroll. But that’s where America found itself in late-March, as major chain stores including Macy’s, Kohl’s, The Gap, and T.J. Maxx told the majority of their workforces to stay home indefinitely, without pay, so workers could collect unemployment. The workers weren’t fired — a furlough is an employer-mandated unpaid leave — but few had any guess of when they’d be able to earn their next paycheck.
Within a few days, nearly 1 million workers were furloughed in retail alone. The next wave of furloughs soon hit the hospitality industry, media outlets, and airlines. Even hospitals, where the coronavirus displaced routine surgeries and care, started sending health workers home in good faith they would soon return.
The human toll of the current economic crisis is already so cataclysmic we’ve virtually lost all measurements to truly comprehend the scale. Over the past seven weeks, more than 33 million people have applied for unemployment — far more than the entire population of Texas. Weekly unemployment claims are well over five times higher than the worst days of the Great Recession. These claims don’t include people in the U.S. who don’t qualify for benefits, have dropped out of the workforce, or otherwise fall through the cracks of a system notorious for failing those who need help most.
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Nobody knows precisely how many of those unemployment claims are for workers who could return to their job on the other side of this pandemic. In theory, these furloughs are a bright spot, giving workers a path forward once the threat of the virus is gone. They allow many workers to stay on their employer’s health insurance and…