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US Unemployment Benefit Claims Increased Again Last Week

FILE - A man walks past the signs of an employment agency, March 2, 2021, in Manchester, N.H.

New U.S. unemployment compensation claims jumped again last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, as the recovery from the economic damage caused by the coronavirus remains tenuous.

The government said 719,000 workers filed for benefits last week, up 61,000 from the revised figure of the previous week. The week-ago figure of 658,000 was the smallest total of new jobless benefit claims in the United States since the coronavirus first swept into the country a year ago.

But other than the week-old total, the number of jobless benefit claims has remained above 700,000 a week, and above 800,000 and 900,000 in some weeks in early 2021. Until the virus swept through the U.S., the highest pre-pandemic weekly claims total, in records dating back to the 1960s, was 695,000, after reaching a peak of 6.9 million claims a year ago.

By comparison, in 2019, before the pandemic, unemployment compensation claims averaged 218,000 a week.

Employers in many states are still facing directives to curtail their operations, while some state governors are revoking orders for people to wear face masks and allowing businesses to fully reopen or setting dates in the coming weeks when they say businesses can ramp up.

The employment picture in the U.S. also could improve as money from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package filters through the economy. The measure could help boost hiring and consumer spending, as millions of Americans, all but the highest wage earners, are now receiving $1,400 stimulus checks from the government.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Congress recently, “With the passage of the rescue plan, I am confident that people will reach the other side of this pandemic with the foundations of their lives intact. And I believe they will be met there by a growing economy. In fact, I think we may see a return to full employment next year.”

About 2.5 million Americans are now being vaccinated against the virus each day, with Biden promising that 90% of all adults who want a vaccination will be eligible to get one by April 19, less than three weeks from now.

More than 54 million Americans are fully inoculated with one of the three available vaccines, about 21% of the U.S. adult population. As that number grows, more people are regaining a sense of normalcy in their lives.

Even so, the number of new cases is on the rise again in the U.S., with Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying this week she has a feeling of "impending doom."

"We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope," Walensky said. "But right now, I'm scared."

Employers in many states are still confronted with orders from state and municipal officials to restrict business hours or limit the number of customers they can serve at any one time to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Those arriving for dinner in a restaurant, sometimes for the first time in a year, still find many establishments cordoning off every other table to keep customers safely distanced from each other.

U.S. employers added 379,000 jobs in February and the unemployment rate edged down to 6.2%. The country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, predicts it could drop further to 4.5% later this year.

The government is releasing its March employment report on Friday, with economists predicting that the U.S. economy added 675,000 jobs last month and that the jobless rate edged down to 6%.

The Fed is expecting the economy to grow by 6.5% this year compared to its previous projection of 4.2%, with the growth rate slowing to 3.9% in 2022 and 3.5% in 2023.

Despite the rosier picture, Fed chair Jerome Powell has cautioned that the economy will not instantly return to pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s just a lot of people who need to get back to work, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Powell told Congress recently. “The faster, the better.”

Under the $1.9 trillion relief deal, the federal government is continuing to make $300-a-week extra payments to the jobless into early September, on top of less generous state benefits, a provision that will help millions of unemployed until their old jobs are restored, or they find new work.

In the U.S., only slightly more than half of the 22 million jobs lost in the pandemic have been recovered.

U.S. employers have called back millions of workers who were laid off during business shutdowns in 2020. But some hard-hit businesses have been slow to ramp up operations again or have closed permanently, leaving workers idled or searching for new employment.

The coronavirus relief measure, however, almost certainly will give a new boost to the economy, easing the path for many employers to keep workers on their payrolls as coronavirus restrictions are gradually eased.

The U.S. has now recorded 552,000 coronavirus deaths and more than 30 million infections, both figures higher than that being reported in any other country, according to Johns Hopkins University.