Business

Jobless claims slip to still-high 787,000

Figures suggest nation's job market stumbling in face of pandemic

Restrictions in many states are forcing many businesses, having run through much of their cash reserves, to cut more job
Restrictions in many states are forcing many businesses, having run through much of their cash reserves, to cut more jobs. Above, a job fair in Tampa, Fla., in September. (Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell slightly last week, to 787,000 — an historically high number that points to a weak job market held back by the viral pandemic.

Thursday’s figure from the U.S. Labor Department, a slight decline from the previous week, shows that even with the pandemic recession in its 10th month, many businesses still are laying off workers.

Before the recession, weekly jobless claims typically numbered around 225,000.

The renewed surge in coronavirus cases has caused millions of consumers to avoid eating out, shopping and traveling. And most states have imposed new restrictions on restaurants, bars and other businesses.

Economists at TD Securities estimate more than half of states are now restricting gatherings to 10 people or fewer, up from roughly a quarter in September.

Those restrictions are forcing many companies, having run through much of their cash reserves, to cut more jobs.

“Unemployment remains extremely high, although not nearly as bad as it was in the spring, and the pace of improvement in the job market has slowed dramatically from the summer,” said Gus Faucher, an economist at PNC Financial.

“Job growth should pick up in the spring as vaccine distribution continues, better weather allows for more outdoor activities and states gradually loosen restrictions.”

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Many economists, along with the Federal Reserve’s policymakers, say they’re hopeful once the coronavirus vaccines are more widely distributed, the economy will achieve a broader recovery in the second half of the year.

The $900 billion financial aid package Congress enacted last month also should help accelerate an eventual rebound.

Late Wednesday, Goldman Sachs upgraded its forecast for economic growth this year to a robust 6.4 percent, up from 5.9 percent.

Its upgrade was based in part on the expectation that the Biden administration, with help from the now-Democratic-controlled Senate, will support another rescue aid package.

Last month’s stimulus measure provided a $300-a-week federal jobless benefit on top of an average state benefit of about $320.

As many as half the states now are distributing the federal benefit, according to an unofficial tally at UnemploymentPUA.com.

In states that take longer to pay out the $300, any missed payments can be made retroactively.

A federal program that provides extended benefits, after state benefits run out, was lengthened to 24 weeks by the aid package. That program will remain in place until mid-March.

A separate program that provides jobless aid to contractors and gig workers who previously weren’t eligible was also extended for 11 weeks. Both benefits had briefly expired Dec. 26, threatening about 13 million people with a cutoff in aid.

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Thursday’s report also showed that the number of people who are receiving regular state unemployment aid fell 125,000, to 5.1 million.

And fewer people were on extended unemployment benefit programs. Those declines suggested that many of those people have used up all the benefits available to them, including extended federal aid.

They can reapply, though, now that more weeks of aid are available. Overall, more than 19 million people still are receiving some form of unemployment benefit.

The Labor Department said this week that despite President Donald Trump’s delay in signing the relief package — he did so six days after Congress’ approval — jobless benefits under the extended programs that lapsed Dec. 26 should be paid out without interruption.

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