Around 1.5 million people filed for unemployment for the first time last week, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Labor, higher than economists' predictions of 1.3 million.
While Thursday's data indicates the continuation of a downward trend, it reflects an elevated unemployment level that has remained unabated for 13 straight weeks.
Initial claims totaled 1.508 million for the week ended June 13, down from 1.566 million in the prior week, according to the Labor Department figures. The latter figure reflects an upward revision of 24,000.
“For an economy that is reopening, that is a huge number,” Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist at TS Lombard, told Reuters. “The economy is losing workers and employment beyond the initial impact tied to businesses that shut down."
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell reiterated that message this week in testimony to lawmakers, saying, "The longer the downturn lasts, the greater the potential for longer-term damage from permanent job loss and business closures. Long periods of unemployment can erode workers' skills and hurt their future job prospects."
Specifically, Thursday's data showed that continuing claims, or the number of people applying for ongoing benefits is now around 20.5 million. With the economy reopening, that number should have tapered off by now, labor market analysts say, since millions of people who were furloughed or laid off are theoretically returning to their job.
However, concerns are mounting that many of those temporary layoffs will become permanent once companies and small businesses realize they cannot meet their margins amid social distancing guidelines and the recessionary environment.
The Fed Chair credited federal loans and grants to businesses, as well as a massive round of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits to individuals, for "supporting household incomes and spending" during the crisis and for helping to boost employment gains. The latest monthly employment report showed a surprise gain of 2.5 million jobs.
As states begin their gradual reopening, the massive toll of unemployed took on a new reality this week, with videos circulating on social media of hundreds of people lining up for hours, and sometimes overnight, to speak in person to a representative from their state labor department in hope of claiming their unemployment benefits.
Many labor departments have struggled to process a surge in unemployment claims that has overwhelmed systems and personnel — creating backlogs that have left many applicants waiting as long as three months to receive benefits.