The number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits remained elevated last week amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and governments ordering new restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus.
Figures released Thursday by the Labor Department show 885,000 Americans filed first-time jobless claims in the week ended Dec. 12, more than the 800,000 that analysts surveyed by Refinitiv were expecting. It marked the highest level since the beginning of September, when 893,000 Americans filed for aid.
The number is nearly four times the pre-crisis level but is well below the peak of almost 7 million that was reached when stay-at-home orders were first issued in March. Almost 70 million Americans, or about 40% of the labor force, have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
The number of people who are continuing to receive unemployment benefits fell to 5.508 million, a decline of about 273,000 from the previous week.
Still, some of the drop in so-called continuing claims may represent workers who have used up the maximum number of payments available through state unemployment programs (typically about six months) and are now receiving benefits through a separate federal program that extends the aid by 13 weeks. Congress created the extra federal benefits earlier this year with the passage of the CARES Act.
But those key federal jobless aid programs created in March are slated to expire at the end of the year, leaving about 12 million workers with no income on Dec. 26, according to a new study published by the Century Foundation, a nonprofit think tank.
Job losses remain elevated and, as COVID-19 cases surge across the country, prompting state and local governments to implement new lockdown measures, economists are increasingly warning of a bleak winter.
“It would be very helpful and very important that there be additional fiscal support for the economy, really to get us through the winter,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers this week. “I think we made a lot of progress faster than we expected, and now we have a big spike in COVID cases, and it may weigh on economic activity."