Jobless claims worse than expected as pandemic-related filings surge

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First-time claims for unemployment insurance totaled 793,000 last week as declining Covid-19 cases provided little relief for the jobs market.

The total for the week ended Feb. 6 was above the 760,000 forecast from economists surveyed by Dow Jones but a slight decrease from the previous week’s upwardly revised total of 812,000.

The pandemic era has provided a long struggle for the jobs market to get back to its previous level. Nonfarm payrolls increased by just 49,000 in January, while the unemployment rate fell to 6.3% primarily due to a decline in the labor force.

Continuing claims, which run a week behind the weekly claims number, also declined, falling 145,000 to 4.54 million.

However, the total of those receiving benefits across all program jumped to 20.44 million, due to a surge in filings for two pandemic compensation programs, one for those who wouldn’t otherwise receive benefits and the other for those whose regular benefits have run out.

Enrollment under the special pandemic programs rose by nearly 2.7 million for the week ended Jan. 23.

The programs had expired Dec. 26 but were renewed by Congress for 2021. Paperwork issues resulted in delays for a number of states such as Ohio, which saw an increase of more than 90,000 claims last week, according to unadjusted data. The new legislation provides benefits of $300 above what recipients normally would get.

California also saw a notable increase, with 23,588 new claims. Several states saw large declines, including Florida (-51,519), New York (-19,824) and Maryland (-19,736).

There remain more than 10 million unemployed workers despite more about 12.5 million jobs reclaimed since the depths of the pandemic in March and April 2020.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Wednesday said the jobs picture remains “a long way” from where it needs to be and said the central bank is committed to keeping interest rates low until substantially more progress happens.