Nearly 15% of all workers in Southeast Tennessee have filed initial claims for jobless benefits in the past four weeks as the shutdown of restaurants, stores and many other businesses continues to cut jobs since stay-at-home orders began in March.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday that a record 43,517 workers in Southeast Tennessee have filed initial claims for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks in the 10 counties in the Chattanooga area. Last week alone, 10,188 persons in the 10-county Southeast Tennessee district filed claims for unemployment benefits, which have been enhanced by the U.S. Congress to help minimize the economic hardship caused by the dramatic drop in economic activity.

Statewide, 354,373 Tennesseans have filed for unemployment since March 21, the sharpest increase in jobless claims in history.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday that more than 4.4 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total number of Americans seeking jobless aid to about 26 million in the five weeks since the coronavirus outbreak began forcing millions of employers to close their doors.

"At all levels, it's eye-watering numbers," said Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank Securities.

By the numbers

Tennessee jobless claims

Week ended March 28 - 94,492

Week ended April 4 - 116,141

Week ended April 11 - 74,772

Week ended April 18 - 68,968

Southeast Tennessee claims*

Week ended March 28 - 9,309

Week ended April 4 - 13,578

Week ended April 11 - 10,442

Week ended April 18 - 10,188

* Hamilton, Marion, Sequatchie, Bradley, Polk, Meigs, Rhea, Bledsoe, McMinn and Grundy counties.

Source: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development

The number of people who are receiving unemployment benefits has reached a record 16 million, surpassing a previous high of 12 million set in 2010, just after the 2008-2009 recession ended. This figure reflects people who have managed to navigate the online or telephone application systems in their states, have been approved for benefits and are actually receiving checks.

In some states, many laid-off workers have run into obstacles in trying to file applications for benefits. Among them are millions of freelancers, contractors, gig workers and self-employed people -- a category of workers who are now eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time.

"This has been a really devastating shock for a lot of families and small businesses," said Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota. "It is beyond their control and no fault of their own."

Those getting jobless benefits are benefiting by an extra $600 weekly supplement provided by the federal stimulus package, boosting the maximum unemployment benefits paid in Tennessee from both the state and federal governments up to $875 a week, or the equivalent of $45,500 a year. But the enhanced benefits are only for up to four months.

The enormous magnitude of job cuts has plunged the U.S. economy into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some economists say the nation's output could shrink by twice the amount that it did during the Great Recession, which ended in 2009.

Dr. William Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, predicts Tennessee's jobless rate could rise as high as 15% in April, surpassing the unemployment levels reached in the worst of the Great Recession a decade earlier.

The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report