Unemployment claims in US show layoffs continue to batter economy

Patricia Cohen and Gillian Friedman, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 04 2020 12:18 PM | Updated as of Sep 04 2020 12:19 PM

More than five months after the coronavirus pandemic began throttling the economy, layoffs remain widespread, the U.S. government reported Thursday, the latest sign of the labor market’s painstakingly slow recovery.

Last week, 833,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits, while 759,000 new claims were filed by freelancers, part-time workers and others under a federal program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Both figures, which are not seasonally adjusted, were increases from the previous week.

“It’s pretty bad at this stage in the crisis,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at the forecasting firm Oxford Economics. “I feel like this is a very fragile labor market at a critical juncture.”

There has been progress from the early days of the pandemic, when weekly tallies of new claims surged past 6 million. But recent improvements have been more arduous.

Of the 22 million jobs lost in March and April, more than 9 million have been regained. And most analysts expect that the monthly jobs report, scheduled for release Friday, will show a dip in August from double-digit unemployment rates.

But the damage to the economy has been wide and deep. As of mid-August, more than 29 million Americans were receiving some sort of unemployment insurance.

The report Thursday was the first to be affected by a change in the way the Labor Department accounts for predictable seasonal patterns, like temporary holiday workers who are laid off in January.

The seasonally adjusted figure for the week was 881,000. The number looks much lower than the previous week’s adjusted figure of just over 1 million, but the drop can be attributed to the altered methodology. Because the change means seasonally adjusted numbers cannot be compared with those tallied until now, The Times is emphasizing the unadjusted figures.

The unadjusted number of 833,000 last week was an increase from 826,000 the week before.

Daco said he was particularly concerned about the increase last week in new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the program for those generally ineligible for state jobless benefits. The total of 759,000 was up from 608,000 a week earlier.

“It could reflect a weakening economy in some of the states worst impacted by the health crisis,” he said, “or it could be that some of the workers that had returned are finding that it’s not possible or sustainable to return to their primary economic activity in the current environment.”

Help wanted, depending on the industry.

Some businesses are hiring. Postings at the job search site Indeed rose slightly last week, although the total is still more than 20% below what it was this time last year.

The hospitality, tourism, and sports and fitness sectors are in the worst shape, with postings down more than 40% from where they were a year ago. Listings for higher-wage jobs in banking, finance and software development are also much more scarce.

Construction, driving and warehouse jobs seem to be the most plentiful.

The job site ZipRecruiter has seen a gradual increase in job listings over the past couple of months, but the pace of growth began to slow in mid-August, said Julia Pollak, the company’s economist.

Consumers pulled back on spending after a $600 weekly jobless benefit supplement ceased in July. At the same time, many small businesses are running out of the money they received through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

A recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Business found that 1 out of 5 small-business owners said they would have to shut down if economic conditions did not improve in the next six months.

Congressional negotiations on a new relief package remain at a standstill.

The Labor Department report provided no fundamental change in the jobs picture that would resolve the stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in Congress over a new economic relief package.

With the end of the $600-a-week jobless benefit supplement, most states are moving ahead with plans to provide unemployed workers with a temporary replacement: a weekly $300 supplement paid out of federal disaster relief funds.

As of Wednesday, 45 states had applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Six of those — Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and Texas — have started paying out benefits, according to the Labor Department, but a vast majority have not.

Most will probably not be able to gear up to start payments until mid-September or later. The supplement is expected to last four or five weeks.

South Dakota is the only state that has confirmed it is not taking part. Gov. Kristi Noem says her state doesn’t need the money.

A handful of states, including Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia, have plans to boost the supplement with an additional $100.