People line up outside a Kentucky Career Center hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claim in Frankfort, Kentucky, June 18, 2020.
FILE - People line up outside a Kentucky Career Center hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claim in Frankfort, Kentucky.

WASHINGTON - Another 1.3 million laid-off U.S. workers filed for unemployment compensation last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, in the latest sign that employers are still facing difficult headwinds as the number of coronavirus cases surges.

It was the 16th straight week that the number of benefit claims had dropped from the one-week high of 6.9 million in March, but the recent four-week rolling average of more than 1.4 million claims a week remained historically high.

In all, the government said about 18 million workers remain unemployed even as millions of workers have returned to their jobs. A total of 49.7 million workers have collected jobless benefits at some point in the last four months.   

The unemployment benefit claim figures since mid-March have been staggering, easily topping the 695,000 total in one week in 1982 that was the highest on record.  

The U.S. Labor Department says about 20 million laid-off workers have been continuing to collect unemployment benefits in recent weeks, a figure that eased a bit last week. But it is a total that suggests that new hiring or the return of workers to their jobs has barely offset continuing layoffs.  

Millions of the unemployed have returned to work, but those still left without work are facing new financial difficulties, with the national government’s $600-a-week boost to less generous state unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of July. In addition, economic experts say that employers have cut millions of jobs off their ledgers, leaving one-time workers with nothing to return to, or have permanently closed their businesses.

The White House and Congress are considering what additional aid, if any, laid-off workers should get from the federal government, but no decisions are likely before the end of July. Some additional boost to the U.S. economy is likely, however, but the money could go to businesses or state and local governments rather than directly to taxpayers or the unemployed.

President Donald Trump has said he supports another round of $1,200 stimulus payments to most taxpayers, even as some of his fellow Republicans have voiced concerns about the country’s ever-increasing national debt that now totals more than $26 trillion. Another proposal calls for sending money to people returning to their jobs, as an incentive to get them to stop collecting unemployment benefits.

Key U.S. economic officials are predicting that the country’s full recovery from the pandemic will take a lengthy period, extending well into 2021.    

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said a week ago that the immediate path ahead for the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, remains “extraordinarily uncertain.” He said the recovery is largely dependent on containing the pandemic, but more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases a day have been recorded in the U.S. on several recent days, with a new high of more than 62,000 on Wednesday.

The southern tier of U.S. states that had escaped the brunt of the pandemic in March and April has been particularly hard hit. Their governors reopened businesses – too soon, some now acknowledge -- and younger people started socializing in public again at bars and restaurants without embracing such safe practices as wearing a face mask or social distancing themselves from others by at least two meters.  

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said last week the country’s unemployment rate improved to 11.1% in June, compared to the official May figure of 13.3%. But the June figure was compiled at mid-month before the surge of new coronavirus cases.

The Federal Reserve has predicted that U.S. unemployment will fall to 9.3% by the end of this year and to 6.5% by the end of 2021, a rosier advance than some economists are forecasting.   

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has now topped 132,000, by far the most of any country in the world, and health experts predict tens of thousands more will die in coming months.