The number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits remained elevated last week as a surge in COVID-19 infections and new restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus weighed on the labor market's recovery.
Figures released Thursday by the Labor Department show 900,000 Americans filed first-time jobless claims in the week ended Jan. 16, slightly lower than the 910,000 forecast by Refinitiv economists.
The number is nearly four times the pre-crisis level but is well below the peak of almost 7 million that was reached when stay-at-home orders were first issued in March. Almost 70 million Americans, or about 40% of the labor force, have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
The number of people who are continuing to receive unemployment benefits fell to 5.054 million, a decline of about 127,000 from the previous week. The report shows that roughly 15.99 million Americans were receiving some kind of jobless benefit through Jan. 2.
Many more Americans are receiving jobless aid from two federal programs that Congress established with the passage of the CARES Act in March: One extends aid to self-employed individuals, gig workers and others who typically aren't eligible to receive benefits, and the other provides aid to those who have exhausted their state benefits.
"The current wave of the pandemic doesn't appear to be receding yet and the prospect of new, more transmissible variants raise the risk of a prolonged third wave," said Daniel Zhao, Glassdoor senior economist. "While the vaccine offers a light at the end of the tunnel, we're still far away from a complete reopening of the economy that could drive rehiring and stem further layoffs."
The federal government renewed those programs at the end of December with the passage of a $900 billion relief act, which includes a supplemental $300-a-week jobless benefit, a one-time $600 stimulus check for most adults and new funding for a small business rescue program.
Top Democrats saw the relief package as the tip of the iceberg, and President Biden, who was inaugurated on Wednesday, has unveiled a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that includes $20 billion for vaccine distribution, extended unemployment benefits at $400 a week through September and a third stimulus check worth $1,400.