WASHINGTON – 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 a work in progress.
The government said 744,000 workers filed for benefits last week, up 16,000 from the revised figure of the previous week. The figure two weeks ago of 658,000 remains as the only weekly total of new jobless benefit claims below 700,000 since the coronavirus first swept into the U.S. in March a year ago.
Until the pandemic, the highest U.S. 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.
But there is some reason for a more favorable outlook. With about a quarter of U.S. adults now fully vaccinated, some people are spending again on gym memberships, restaurant dining and vacation travel they have done without over the last year, which could lead to more hiring to accommodate customers.
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 continues to filter 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.
Vaccination progressing steadily
More than 3 million Americans are now being vaccinated against the virus each day, with Biden promising that all adults who want a vaccination will be eligible to get one starting April 19, a week-and-a-half from now. It could take weeks, however, for many people to schedule their inoculation appointments.
More than 64 million American adults are fully inoculated with one of the three available vaccines. 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 a week ago 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.
Surge in job openings
U.S. employers added 916,000 jobs in March and the unemployment rate fell to 6%. In addition, there has been a recent surge in job openings, indicating employers are looking to refill their staffs. The country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, predicts the jobless rate could drop further to 4.5% later this year.
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 about 12 million of the 22 million jobs lost in the pandemic have been recovered. Some economists project that it could take four years to recover all of them.
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 559,000 coronavirus deaths and nearly 31 million infections, both figures higher than that being reported in any other country, according to Johns Hopkins University.