WASHINGTON - U.S. unemployment compensation claims rose again last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to play havoc with the world’s largest economy.
The government said 861,000 workers filed for benefits last week, up 13,000 from the revised figure of the previous week, which itself increased sharply from the initially reported figure.
The U.S. economy is still facing headwinds as tens of thousands of people are still being infected daily by the coronavirus even though the number of new infections has dropped sharply in the last two weeks to below 100,000 a day. But employers 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 the virus.
For months now, the number of jobless benefit claims has remained above 700,000 a week, and above 800,000 and 900,00 in some weeks.
All the weekly totals in the last several months have been well below the 6.9 million record number of claims filed late last March as the pandemic took hold in the U.S. Still, all the weekly jobless benefit claim figures in the last 11 months have been above the highest pre-pandemic level in records going back to the 1960s.
The federal government has been making $300-a-week extra payments to the jobless on top of less generous state benefits, a stipend that will last into next month. President Joe Biden, as part of his proposed $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief package, is trying to boost that stipend to $400 a week through September. Republicans want to keep the payments at $300 and end them sooner.
Biden has narrow majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, possibly easing approval of his relief plan, but only if Democrats vote as a bloc or the president, a Democrat, can convince some Republican lawmakers to support it.
The Democratic-controlled Congress has advanced procedural rules that would allow it to eventually approve the deal on a straight party-line vote if needed, without Republican support. But many details of the legislation are uncertain.
In the U.S., nearly 10 million of the 22 million workers who lost jobs in the pandemic remain unemployed. The jobless rate dipped to 6.3% in January, with many economists saying the figure could remain elevated for months.
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.
Some state and municipal officials have imposed new restrictions on businesses, forcing owners to once again lay off workers, even as more than 57 million coronavirus vaccine shots have been administered, with about 12% of the U.S. adult population getting the first dose of the two-shot regimen and nearly 5% having received both shots.
The U.S. economy has regained strength since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Commerce Department. Growth slowed in the last three months of 2020, although it did not collapse into a recession.
It grew by 1% in the October-to-December period, down from a robust 7.5% advance in the previous three months.
With the sharp economic decline recorded at the height of the pandemic earlier in 2020, the U.S. economy slumped 3.5% for the year, the Commerce agency reported. By comparison, the economy gained 2.2% in 2019.
Still, the 2020 decline was not as severe as some financial experts had predicted when the coronavirus first swept into the U.S. a year ago. Now, economists are predicting an eventual rebound in 2021, particularly in the second half of the year, as millions of Americans are inoculated against the virus.
Biden, in a CNN townhall question-and-answer session this week with voters in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, predicted the United States could return to a sense of normalcy by the end of 2021.
The U.S. has now recorded 490,000 coronavirus deaths and 27.8 million infections, both figures higher than that being reported in any other country, according to Johns Hopkins University.