Jobless Claims Stalled at 787,000

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New weekly jobless claims came in at 787,000 in the week that ended January 2, the Department of Labor said Wednesday.

That exactly matched the initial report for the prior week. Economists had expected a rise to 815,000, according to Marketwatch. The prior week’s figure was revised up to 790,000.

Jobless claims can be volatile week to week so many economists prefer to look at the four-week average. This rose to 818,750, a decrease of 18,750 from the previous week’s upwardly revised level.

Jobless claims—which are a proxy for layoffs—remain at extremely high levels. Prior to the pandemic, the highest level of claims was 695,000 hit in October of 1982. In March of 2009, at the depths of the financial crisis recession, jobless claims peaked at 665,000.

Even when the economy is creating a lot of demand for workers, many businesses will shed employees as they adjust to market conditions. But in a high-pressure labor market, those employees quickly find jobs and many never show up on the employment rolls. What appears to be happening now is that many workers who lose their jobs cannot quickly find replacement work and are forced to apply for benefits.

Claims hit a record 6.87 million for the week of March 27, more than ten times the previous record. Through spring and early summer, each subsequent week had seen claims decline. But in late July, the labor market appeared to stall and claims hovered around one million throughout August, a level so high it was never recorded before the pandemic struck. Claims moved down again in September and had made slow, if steady, progress until the election.

The election of Joe Biden and uncertainty about which party would control the Senate may be discouraging businesses from hiring. Biden has promised to make raising taxes on businesses a top priority for his administration, which will leave businesses with fewer funds for expanding payrolls or raising wages. As well, many businesses expect a flood of new regulations from the Biden administration, which is also a drag on the labor market.

New restrictions on businesses aimed at stemming the resurgence of coronavirus are likely contributing to layoffs now. Some states and cities have imposed new curfews and discouraged people from leaving home for non-essential reasons. Businesses faced with this suppressed demand will likely be forced to cut their payrolls to reflect lower sales.

The monthly jobs report released on the first Friday of December showed that hiring had slowed in November. Some sectors hardest hit by limits on capacity and social distancing, including restaurants, pared down their payrolls. Retailers expanded their payrolls by hundreds of thousands of workers to prepare for the holiday shopping season. But because they hired fewer workers than Department of Labor economists expected, this showed up as a contraction in the seasonally adjusted figures. Some of the traditional retail jobs also appear to have migrated into shipping and warehousing as shoppers moved online.

Continuing claims, those made after the first filing for benefits, get reported with a week’s lag from initial claims. For the week ended December 26, continuing claims fell 126,000 to 5,072,000. The four-week average of continuing claims was 5,274,750, a decrease of 177,250 from the previous week, also a smaller decline than recorded in the week prior.

In addition to regular state unemployment benefits, the federal government this spring launched two new programs aimed at delivering benefits to workers who ordinarily would not qualify, including gig workers and the self-employed. During the week ending December 19, states reported 8,383,387 continued weekly claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. States reported 4,516,900 continued claims for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits.

The total number of continued weeks claimed for benefits in all programs for the week ending December 19 was 19,176,857, a decrease of 419,228 from the previous. There were 1,803,796 weekly claims filed for benefits in all programs in the comparable week in 2019.