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A person walks by a store displaying a sale sign on Jan. 8, 2021 in New York City. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
COVID & Unemployment

Unemployment claims dip to 900,000

Associated Press Jan 21, 2021
A person walks by a store displaying a sale sign on Jan. 8, 2021 in New York City. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, lowering claims to 900,000, still a historically high level that points to further job cuts in a raging pandemic.

The Labor Department’s report Thursday underscored that President Joe Biden has inherited an economy that faltered this winter as virus cases spiked, cold weather restricted dining and federal rescue aid expired. The government said that 5.1 million Americans are continuing to receive state jobless benefits, down from 5.2 million in the previous week. That signals that fewer people who are out of work are finding jobs.

New viral infections have begun to slow after months of relentless increases, though they remain high and are averaging about 200,000 a day. The number of deaths in the United States from the pandemic that erupted 10 months ago has surpassed 400,000.

Economists say one factor that likely increased jobless claims in the past two weeks is a government financial aid package that was signed into law in late December. Among other things, it provided a $300-a-week federal unemployment benefit on top of regular state jobless aid. The new benefit, which runs through mid-March, may be encouraging more Americans to apply for jobless benefits.

Once vaccines become more widely distributed, economists expect growth to accelerate in the second half of the year as Americans unleash pent-up demand for travel, dining out and visiting movie theaters and concert halls. Such spending should, in theory, boost hiring and start to regain the nearly 10 million jobs lost to the pandemic.

But for now, the economy is losing ground. Retail sales have fallen for three straight months. Restrictions on restaurants, bars and some stores, along with a reluctance of most Americans to shop, travel and eat out, have led to sharp spending cutbacks. Revenue at restaurants and bars plunged 21% in 2020.

At the same time, a steady weakening of the job market has meant hardship for millions of American households. In December, employers cut 145,000 jobs, the first loss since April and the sixth straight month in which hiring has weakened. The unemployment rate remained stuck at a still-high 6.7%.

Yet there are signs that the $900 billion federal aid package enacted late last month may have begun to cushion the damage, in large part thanks to $600 checks being sent to most adults. The government began distributing the payments at the end of last month.

Those payments have likely helped drive an increase in spending on debit and credit cards issued by Bank of America, economists at the bank wrote last week. Total card spending jumped 9.7% for the week that ended Jan. 9 compared with a year earlier. That was up from a 2% year-over-year increase before the stimulus payments, Bank of America said.

Last week, Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan that would provide, among other things, $1,400 checks for most Americans, which, on top of the $600 checks already being distributed, would bring the total to $2,000 per adult.

The new plan would also make available $400 a week in federal benefits for jobless Americans and extend a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures through September. Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal will require congressional approval.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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