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Around 837,000 people filed for first-time jobless claims last week

Around 12 million people are still filing weekly for ongoing unemployment benefits.
Image: The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in New York City
A person holds a sign advertising a sale at Century 21, which filed for bankruptcy and is closing its stores due to the economic impact of Covid-19, in New York City on Sept. 26, 2020.Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Around 837,000 people filed for first-time jobless benefits last week, showing no loosening of the coronavirus pandemic's stranglehold on the nation's labor force.

The weekly number remains seven times higher than it was during the pre-pandemic era. Weekly unemployment claims have hovered at under 900,000 for the past few weeks — down from a March spike of almost 7 million — after some sporadic hiring over the summer, as warmer weather enabled outdoor dining, fitness classes and shopping.

However, as the pandemic nears its seventh month, the jobless toll continues to mount. Overnight, tens of thousands of airline employees were thrown out of work after months of negotiations failed to produce a deal between lawmakers that would extend funding to keep pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, counter agents and other airline and airport personnel on the payroll.

"I don't have a backup plan. I'm going to be on the unemployment line like so many other people," Amanda Steinbrunn, a flight attendant who has been with United Airlines for five years, told NBC News. "I feel like I'm being left behind, and there's nothing we can do. It's extremely out of our hands, and we're just sitting around terrified."

And just this week, Disney announced it would be laying off 28,000 workers from its parks, experiences and consumer products division, as concerns over the safety of airline travel and a spike in infection rates in some states keep visitors away.

The energy industry also continues to shed workers, with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell confirming this week it will separate 9,000 employees amid a slump in oil demand and an overall shift away from fossil fuels. Oil refiner Marathon Petroleum said Thursday it would be cutting 12 percent of its workforce as the pandemic continues its downward pressure on fuel consumption by businesses and households.

Allstate will also cut 3,800 jobs, the insurer announced Wednesday, or 8 percent of its workforce.

The retail industry has also suffered, with a record number of stores filing for bankruptcy in the first half of 2020, including iconic household names such as Lord & Taylor, J. Crew and Brooks Brothers.

However, holiday hiring in the retail sector could provide a seasonal boost to the jobs data, with big box companies such as Target, Best Buy and Walmart adding hundreds of thousands of holiday workers to their roster as the all-important shopping season approaches.

"This holiday season will be nothing like anything we’ve experienced before," AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the Indeed hiring services company, said. "The effects of Covid-19 will still be felt, affecting everything from family gatherings to what will be this year’s must-have gifts. Coronavirus hit retail sales hard this spring, but they have since rebounded and it’s unclear how strong holiday shopping will be. Hiring is shaping up differently from previous years, reflecting in part reduced store capacity and supply chain shortages."

As cold weather moves in, many businesses and restaurants that have relied on outdoor spaces to ensure social distancing measures will see a drop in demand, indicating that fresh rounds of layoffs may be ahead.

Friday's monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics will provide one final crucial snapshot of the economy before Election Day, and could serve as a referendum on President Donald Trump's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout.