New York CNN Business  — 

Another 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to the US Department of Labor, as American workers continue to suffer from devastating job losses, furloughs and reduced hours during the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the second largest number of initial unemployment claims in history, since the Department of Labor started tracking the data in 1967.

Altogether, about 16.8 million American workers, making up about 11% of the US labor force, have filed initial claims for jobless benefits in just the prior three weeks alone. About 7.5 million workers filed for their second week of benefits or more last week.

Numbers at those levels are startling and contrast starkly with any other economic downturn on record, especially because of how quickly they’ve surged.

Job losses during the Great Recession for example — as deep as they were — came at a much slower pace. It took two years for 8.6 million Americans to lose their jobs in that crisis. This time around, as businesses across the country close to slow the spread of coronavirus, the unemployment crisis has been far more acute, condensed into just a few weeks.

Another way to put the 16.8 million number in perspective: It’s as if the entire adult populations of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin applied for unemployment insurance in the last three weeks, noted economists Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz from the Economic Policy Institute.

How bad can it get?

Economists are expecting job losses will continue, with the unemployment rate peaking in the double digits sometime in the next few months, up from 4.4% in March.

“This week’s unemployment insurance claims are yet another indication of the recessionary dynamics created by the coronavirus pandemic,” Moody’s Senior Vice President Robard Williams wrote in emailed comments.

That said, the government’s economic relief package and policies by the Federal Reserve — including an additional $2.3 trillion in loans announced Thursday morning — will soften the blow a little bit.

Bank of America economists predict employers will cut between 16 million and 20 million jobs, with the unemployment rate peaking at 15.6% between now and June. If that’s the case, it could take at least a couple years for unemployment to return to its pre-pandemic levels.

Still, economists are hoping the recovery from this downturn will be faster than the long drawn-out recoveries from the Great Recession and Great Depression. But ultimately, that will depend on when the coronavirus outbreak is contained.

Aid from the government

In the meantime, government stimulus could help some workers pay their bills. Congress included a historic expansion of unemployment benefits in its $2.2 trillion relief package passed two weeks ago. It includes a $600 weekly increase for up to four months, on top of state unemployment benefits. Workers in some states will start to receive those extra benefits this week.

State labor agencies have been upgrading their servers and adding staff, as they struggle to keep up with the sudden influx in claims. In many states, the computer systems that process claims run on a decades-old programming language known as COBOL. After his state was inundated with skyrocketing claims, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy put out a call for volunteers who know how to code in COBOL to help maintain the overloaded system.

And in Florida, crowds of people have lined up to file paper applications for unemployment benefits after the state’s online and phone systems were also overwhelmed.

“The backlog of filings at the UI offices, [and] reports that some unemployment offices have people lined up outside to apply for benefits, shows how stressed the system is,” said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO.

— CNN’s Tami Luhby and Alicia Lee contributed to this report.