Unemployment claims show layoffs continue to batter economy

By Patricia Cohen and Gillian Friedman
The New York Times Company

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.”

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