The number of workers on UK payrolls dived more than 600,000 between March and May, official figures suggest.
Meanwhile, the number of people claiming work-related benefits jumped 23% in May to hit 2.8 million.
The early estimates reflect the impact of around six weeks of lockdown in the UK, in which almost nine million workers have been furloughed.
But economists say the full effect on employment will not be felt until wage support schemes end in October.
“The slowdown in the economy is now visibly hitting the labour market, especially in terms of hours worked,” said Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician for economic statistics at the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
“Early indicators for May show that the number of employees on payrolls were down over 600,000 compared with March.”
He added that the number of people claiming work-related benefits had climbed again, although “not all of these people are necessarily unemployed”.
Overall, the UK unemployment rate held steady at 3.9% in the three months to April as massive wage support schemes brought in by the government prevented job losses.
Reflecting this, the ONS said the total number of weekly hours worked in period had dropped to 959.9 million – down by a record 94.2 million, or 9%, on the previous year.
There was also a record fall in job vacancies between March and May to 365,000 – down 476,000 from the last quarter.
The changes come after large parts of the economy were shut down to fight coronavirus.
However, Capital Economics economist Ruth Gregory warned bigger unemployment rises were on their way.
“It was abundantly clear in every other indicator [other than the headline unemployment rate] that the labour market has weakened dramatically,” she said.
“Despite the apparent stability of the actual unemployment rate, the labour market data were still pretty awful. And some of this will surely start to filter through into the actual unemployment figures as the government’s job furlough scheme is wound down from August.”
Tej Parikh, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, agreed: “The furlough scheme continues to hold off the bulk of job losses, but unemployment is likely to surge in the months ahead.”
‘I’ve applied for more than 100 jobs’
Kayleigh Rennix has never struggled to find work before. The HR manager from Essex was earning close to £40,000 working in the education sector before she resigned in March, fearing her role was at risk.
Since then she’s applied for dozens of jobs, but has had little interest from employers.
“As my leaving date approached, coronavirus reared its ugly head. I would say I’ve applied for more than 100 jobs and not had many call-backs,” she says.
Now the 34-year-old has found herself relying on benefit payments for the first time in her life, and expects to move back in with her parents when her tenancy expires later in the summer.
In normal times, the employment rate tells you most of what you need to know about jobs.
But these are not normal times.
With the furloughing scheme keeping people employed, if not working, we have to look elsewhere to get a picture of what’s happening.
It’s like building a jigsaw, but with pieces from different boxes: surveys, payroll data, jobs advertised, three-month trends and even looking at week-on-week changes.
The picture it builds is different to the headline employment figure but perhaps not surprising: serious pressure on jobs during lockdown.