US weekly initial jobless claims rise as layoffs remain high

The number of Americans applying for unemployment aid rose last week to 861,000, evidence that layoffs remain painfully high despite a steady drop in the number of confirmed new COVID-19 cases.

Applications from laid-off workers rose 13,000 from the previous week, which was revised sharply higher, the Labor Department said this morning. Before the virus erupted last March, weekly applications for unemployment benefits had never topped 700,000, even during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. 

The job market has stalled, with employers having added a mere 49,000 jobs in January after cutting workers in December. Nearly 10 million jobs remain lost to the pandemic. Though the unemployment rate fell last month to 6.3% from 6.7%, it did so in part because some people stopped looking for jobs. People who aren’t actively seeking work aren’t counted as unemployed. 

Fraudulent claims may be elevating the totals. Last week, Ohio reported a huge increase in applications and said it had set aside about half the increase for additional review out of concern over fraud.

This morning’s report shows that a total of 18.3 million people were receiving unemployment aid as of Jan. 30, down from 19.7 million the previous week. About three-quarters of those recipients are receiving checks from federal programs, including two extended benefit programs that provide jobless aid beyond the 26 weeks given by most states. That trend suggests that a sizable proportion of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, reflecting a bleak job market for many. Read the full report.