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US Jobless Benefit Claims Drop But Overall Level Remains High

FILE - Sale and going-out-of-business signs are displayed in a store window in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, Dec. 1, 2020.

U.S. unemployment benefit claims fell last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, even as the surging number of coronavirus cases threatens to restrict businesses throughout the world’s biggest economy.

A total of 712,000 laid-off workers filed for jobless compensation, down 75,000 from the revised figure of the week before. But the new number remained above the highest pre-pandemic figure in records that date to the 1960s and extends the run of high weekly claim totals that started in mid-March when the coronavirus swept into the United States.

The unemployment rate is a marked improvement from the pandemic low point — a 14.7% jobless rate in April. But with tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases being recorded every day in the U.S. for weeks now, state governors and municipal officials have been imposing new restrictions on business activity, after lifting similar curbs months ago, when the virus seemed to ebb.

With new stay-at-home orders being imposed in some places with the worst outbreaks, the new restrictions could portend more U.S. workers being laid off in the coming weeks.

Retail stores and restaurants are cutting hours if they are open, while entertainment and arts centers are canceling live shows. The approaching colder winter weather in the U.S. also means that fewer outdoor gatherings are possible.

Lawmakers in Congress, stalemated for months on more coronavirus aid for unemployed workers, businesses and state and local governments, are talking again about approving more assistance beyond the $3 trillion they approved months ago, almost all of which has already been spent.

FILE - People walk through a new COVID-19 rapid testing site operated by the Rhode Island Army National Guard, in Providence, Rhode Island, Dec. 1, 2020.
FILE - People walk through a new COVID-19 rapid testing site operated by the Rhode Island Army National Guard, in Providence, Rhode Island, Dec. 1, 2020.

President-elect Joe Biden endorsed a $908 billion stimulus proposal by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that would include extra $300-a-week payments for jobless workers for four months, down from the $600-a-week stipends that expired at the end of July.

Biden said the proposed relief deal “wouldn’t be the answer” to boosting the flagging U.S. economy, but would provide immediate relief for many and called for its approval this month. Biden has vowed to support bigger economic boosts once he is inaugurated January 20.

He told a group of workers on Wednesday, “To state the obvious, my ability to get you help immediately does not exist.”

Whether an economic stimulus of any size is approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in the last seven weeks of his presidency is an open question.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also expressed support for the $908 billion package, calling it a “framework” for negotiations with Republicans.

But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supports a smaller spending package of about $500 billion that includes only limited aid for jobless workers.

The country’s Commerce Department says the economy surged at an annualized 33.1% rate from July to September, after an almost equal plunge from April to June as the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic swept through the country.

Analysts believe that U.S. economic growth will end up being slower in the last three months of the year, especially if business restrictions are markedly increased, such as renewed limitations on indoor seating at restaurants.

Government officials have been reluctant to curtail business activity as much as they did in the March-to-June period; but, as the virus spreads, some state governors who refused to impose earlier restrictions now are ordering limitations.