US weekly unemployment claims rise to highest level since August

The number of people seeking unemployment aid soared last week to 965,000, the most since late August and evidence that the resurgent virus has caused a spike in layoffs.

The latest figures for jobless claims, issued this morning by the Labor Department, remain at levels never seen until the virus struck. Before the pandemic, weekly applications typically numbered around 225,000. Last spring, after nationwide shutdowns took effect, applications for jobless benefits spiked to nearly 7 million—10 times the previous record high. After declining over the summer, weekly claims have been stuck above 700,000 since September.

The high pace of layoffs coincides with an economy that has faltered as consumers have avoided traveling, shopping and eating out in the face of soaring viral caseloads. More than 4,300 deaths were reported Tuesday, another record high.

In addition to the first-time applications for unemployment aid last week, the government says that 5.3 million Americans are continuing to receive state jobless benefits, up from 5.1 million in the previous week. 

The U.S. job market’s weakness was made painfully clear in the December employment report that the government issued last week. Employers shed jobs for the first time since April as the pandemic tightened its grip on consumers and businesses.

The figures also depicted a sharply uneven job market: The losses last month were concentrated among restaurants, bars, hotels and entertainment venues—places that provide in-person services that some governments have restricted or that consumers are avoiding. Educational services, mostly colleges and universities, also cut workers in December. So did film and music studios.

Most other large industries, though, reported job gains. Many economists had expected last spring that job losses would spread to more industries. Though all sectors of the economy initially laid off workers, most of them have avoided deep layoffs. Manufacturing, construction, and professional services like engineering and architecture, for example, all added jobs in December. Read the full story.