A closed department of labour branch in New York, the US. Picture: AFP/ANGELA WEISS
A closed department of labour branch in New York, the US. Picture: AFP/ANGELA WEISS

New York —  Millions more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, indicating major job losses are continuing two months after the coronavirus pandemic started shuttering businesses.

Initial jobless say for regular state programmes totalled 2.44-million in the week ended May 16, labour department figures showed Thursday. The prior week’s figure was revised down by 294,000 to 2.69-million after a clerical error by Connecticut labour officials inflated the overall nationwide figure.

The latest report was marred by another data-entry error, this time from Massachusetts. An official with the northeastern state said in an e-mail that it had 115,952 initial say last week under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programme, not the 1,184,792 shown in the US labour department’s report.

That means nationwide say under the programme — which expands unemployment benefits to those not traditionally eligible, such the self-employed and gig workers — were actually about half of the reported 2.23-million figure.

Since efforts to the contain Covid-19 pandemic rapidly shut down the US economy in mid-March, about 38.6-million initial unemployment insurance say have been filed under state programmes. That two-month total is roughly equivalent to all of the initial say filed during the Great Recession.

Continuing say — the total number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits — increased to a record 25.1-million in state programmes the week ended May 9. That sent the insured unemployment rate, or the number of people now receiving unemployment insurance as a share of the total eligible labour market, to 17.2% for that period.

Economists are monitoring continuing say to gauge the breadth of the recovery in the labour market as states begin to reopen their economies.

One potential silver lining in the figures: the majority of states reported a decline in continuing say, a sign that reopenings are bringing people back to work in many parts of the country. The weekly increase in continuing say owed to large increases in California and Florida, and the California rise owes in part to a biweekly filing cycle for aid recipients.

While most states showed a decline in initial say last week, the data showed significant increases in California, New York and Washington.

Jobless say have reached into the millions on a weekly basis since mid-March, underscoring the depth and breadth of job losses. States have begun to relax restrictions to varying degrees, offering job opportunities for many who found themselves in the firing line.

While that’s a positive development, openings are gradual and far short of need. As the pandemic drags on, the ripple effects will continue to grow, possibly reaching those who — until that point — were still employed.

Unemployment is expected to remain elevated through the end of 2021, and Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell told legislators earlier this week that longer-term joblessness risks extended damage to the economy.


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