Year ends on low note as 787,000 more Americans file for unemployment

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Another 787,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the week before Christmas, the last snapshot of 2020’s appalling jobs market before the New Year.

Unemployment claims have been rising again in recent weeks to their highest levels since the autumn as surging coronavirus rates have slowed hiring and led to more layoffs. At current levels the weekly claims figures are almost four times their pre-pandemic average.

The latest weekly figure from the Department of Labor was 19,000 lower than the previous week’s 803,000 claims but the average number of claims over the last four weeks is now 836,750, more than the population of the city of Seattle.

The national unemployment rate started the year at 3.6% in January and hit a record high of 14.7% in April as the coronavirus shut down much of the US economy. The unemployment rate has since declined dramatically, it was 6.7% in November, but the recovery has been uneven with women and black, Hispanic and young people still experiencing high levels of unemployment. The numbers of long-term unemployed are rising.

The recent increases in weekly unemployment claims signal more trouble ahead.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 25.7 million workers in the US remain officially unemployed, otherwise out of work due to the pandemic, or have experienced a reduction in work hours or pay.

After months of wrangling Congress has finally brokered a deal to extend unemployment assistance to the millions laid off during the pandemic. The $900bn Covid-19 relief bill will give those receiving unemployment benefits an extra $300 a week and extends two pandemic-specific programs used by about 14 million people. But the delay in the agreement means many across the country face delays in payments and more hardship.

Fernando Comas of Secaucus, New Jersey, worked as a video engineer in the entertainment industry before the pandemic and has been furloughed since March until at least 2021.

Six weeks ago, his benefits were exhausted. He has been unable to receive answers from his state unemployment agency to try to resolve the issue.

“I have a family to feed, a mortgage to pay, a car payment, and I’m a single father of two small girls who rely on me to provide for them,” said Comas, who cannot afford to find other work because his family’s health coverage is still being covered by his employer. “I’m going to lose everything, probably going to be evicted and will start to go to the food banks for food for my family.”


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