Huge step in the wrong direction: Unemployment claims soar

The American jobs crisis is escalating again. States have ratcheted up their virus-prevention measures to combat rising infection rates, and the job market has taken it on the chin.

Another 965,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits on a seasonally adjusted basis in the United States last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

That was substantially higher than the previous week, when 784,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits, and far worse than economists had expected.

Weekly first-time jobless claims are stuck at an uncomfortably high level. In late August, the figure dropped below 1 million, but since then, significant improvements have been hard to come by — and last week represented a huge step in the wrong direction. Without seasonal adjustments, initial claims are back up above a million, which is a terrifyingly high number and more than three times more than in the same period last year.

On top of regular claims, 284,470 workers filed claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, about 100,000 more than in the prior week. The program provides aid to people like the self-employed or gig workers, who aren’t covered under regular benefits. After the new stimulus deal extended the program, it is now slated to end in March.

Added together, initial benefit claims totaled 1.4 million last week, excluding seasonal adjustments, the highest total since mid-September.

The passage of the second pandemic stimulus bill at the end of December likely added to the jump in benefit applications, said Mike Englund, chief economist at Action Economics in a note to clients.

Continued claims, which count workers who have claimed aid for at least two weeks in a row, stood at 5.3 million in the week ended January 2, more than economists had predicted.

With the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden less than a week away, Thursday’s report again hammers home that the new administration’s first priority has got to be more stimulus.

The government’s jobs report released last week showed 140,000 American jobs were lost in December — the first loss since April, when the economy was in freefall.

“The fact that benefits claims are increasing suggests that the economy may lose jobs again in January, as the number of coronavirus cases continues to surge, weighing heavily on businesses,” said Cailin Birch, global economist at The Economist Intelligence Unit, in emailed comments.

Biden plans to create millions of jobs, including in the infrastructure and clean energy industries. Experts hope that Democratic control across the White House and Congress means a more stimulus quickly. But the turmoil on Capitol Hill, including the second impeachment of President Donald Trump by the House of Representatives, could derail bipartisan cooperation.

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