Initial weekly jobless claims total 884,000, versus 850,000 expected

Six months into the pandemic, companies are still announcing new layoffs.
Image: Employment benefits
Clients line up outside the Mississippi Department of Employment Security WIN Job Center in Pearl last month.Rogelio V. Solis / AP

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By Lucy Bayly

The latest first-time claims for unemployment benefits totaled 884,000 last week, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Labor, higher than economists' forecast of 850,000.

As the economy reopens, the number of people filing for jobless claims has inched slowly and falteringly downward, with a resurgence in infection rates tempering any steady descent.

Six months into the pandemic, the latest weekly total is still more than quadruple pre-pandemic levels. Data for the previous week was revised upward from 881,000 to 884,000, which was down from 1.01 million the week before. That drop was partly attributed to a change in the methodology used to tabulate the seasonally adjusted weekly figures.

Weekly jobless claims hit a record high in March, spiking to almost 7 million as the pandemic shut down businesses, stores and restaurants to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

While lawmakers in Washington continue to debate whether additional unemployment assistance deters job seekers from returning to the work force, many people are simply finding that the jobs they once had no longer exist. Around 22 million people have lost their job since the coronavirus hit, and just half of those positions have so far returned.

Even for businesses that have reopened, foot traffic — and staffing — is still way below pre-pandemic levels, as many customers continue to shop online out of fear of contracting the virus. With many restaurants forced to operate at just 25 percent capacity to maintain social distancing, business owners have yet to call back the majority of employees laid off as the virus hit.

In addition, online learning has emerged as a major factor contributing to the delayed return to work, keeping parents — usually mothers — at home to help children navigate the new educational environment.

“Firms continued to experience difficulty finding necessary labor, a matter compounded by day care availability, as well as uncertainty over the coming school year," the Federal Reserve noted in its most recent Beige Book on the state of the economy.

"With the coronavirus continuing to shut down entire college campuses, the source of all the economic carnage remains unchecked. We’ll see if the latest holiday weekend results in spiking cases, which would further hinder the economy’s healing," said Indeed Hiring Lab economist AnnElizabeth Konkel.

Six months into the pandemic, the sluggish rate of recovery has led to a spike in corporate discussions about permanent job cuts, with almost half of businesses that have already announced furloughs or layoffs saying they expect to make further adjustments in the next 12 months, according to a recent survey by Randstad RiseSmart, an outsourcing firm.

“The ‘V-shaped’ recovery is a mirage,” Nick Mazing, director of research at data provider Sentieo, told NBC News.“We are seeing a permanent reduction in the size of several sectors in the economy.”