U.S. jobless claims above 1 million mark for second straight week

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The number of initial jobless claims in the United States last week totaled above 1 million mark for the second straight week, painting a gloomy outlook for the recovery of a labor market ravaged by the COVID-19 crisis.

In the week ending Aug. 22, the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits decreased by 98,000 to reach 1 million, the Labor Department said in a report. It’s the 22nd time in the past 23 weeks that the figure came in above 1 million.

“While claims have moved up and down in recent weeks, on net, the trend is improving — but only gradually,” Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, wrote in an analysis, noting that new claims for regular state benefits are still higher than any week during the Great Recession.

As COVID-19 shutdowns rippled through the workforce, initial jobless claims spiked by 3 million to reach a record 3.3 million in the week ending March 21, and then doubled to reach a record 6.87 million in the week ending March 28.

After that, the number had been declining for 15 weeks consecutively — though they were still at historically high levels — before the trend was reversed in the week ending July 18 amid a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

The number then fell to 963,000 in the week ending Aug. 8, the first time it has dipped below 1 million since mid-March, but the trend was reversed again in the week ending Aug. 15, when the number of initial jobless claims in the United States rose back above the 1 million mark.

The Labor Department’s jobless claims report also showed the number of people continuing to collect state unemployment benefits declined by 223,000 to 14.5 million in the week ending Aug. 15. The total number of people claiming benefits in all programs for the week ending Aug. 8 also declined 1 million to 27 million.

House, however, noted that “ongoing weakness is also evidenced” by rising claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, a federal program that covers independent contractors or the self-employed, who are not eligible for regular state programs.

The Labor Department’s report showed that jobless claims under the PUA program totaled 607,806 in the week ending Aug. 22, an increase of 82,820 from the previous week.

“The drop in initial claims shows that the labor market is heading in the right direction, but there remains a long way to go,” House said.

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