The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits last week fell by 19,000 to 787,000, still a historically high level as a resurgent coronavirus maintains its grip on the U.S. economy.
While at the lowest level in four weeks, the figures released Thursday by the Labor Department are nearly four times higher than last year at this time before the coronavirus struck. Employers continue to cut jobs as rising infections keep many people at home and state and local governments reimpose tighter restrictions on businesses and public activities.
Jobless claims were running around 225,000 per week before the pandemic struck with force last March when weekly jobless claims surged to 6.9 million and sent the U.S. economy into a deep recession.
The total number of people receiving traditional unemployment benefits fell by 103,000 to 5.2 million for the week ending Dec. 19. That’s still far greater than the 1.7 million a year ago when the unemployment rate was hovering around a half-century low of 3.9%.
Unemployment claims peaked in May at 25.9 million.
The four-week average for claims which smooths out weekly variations rose last week to 836,750, an increase of 17,750 from the previous week.
Economists believe that the holidays, in addition to broad confusion over the status of a COVID-19 relief package, suppressed applications for benefits last week, so the numbers may be worse than they appear.
Congress finally passed a $900 billion relief bill that would boost benefit payments and extend two unemployment assistance programs tied to job losses from the pandemic.
Trump has continued to pressure Congress, through tweets, to boost the stimulus payments to individuals from the $600 in the bill to $2,000. The Democratic-controlled House quickly passed legislation to meet Trump’s demand, but the Republican-led Senate rebuffed that effort.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the measure and said Wednesday that the proposal to boost payments to $2,000 has “no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate.”
Meanwhile, the government has begun sending out the smaller payments to millions of Americans. The $600 payment is going to individuals with incomes up to $75,000.
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