U.S. jobless claims fall last week, but virus risk remains

Construction workers install frames for windows and doors in a home being built in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., on May 7. Emily Elconin/Bloomberg/TNS

U.S. claims for unemployment benefits fell unexpectedly to a one-month low though the recent increases in coronavirus cases and business closures threaten to keep layoffs elevated through early 2021.

Initial jobless claims in regular state programs declined by 19,000 to 787,000 in the week ended Dec. 26, according to a Labor Department report Thursday. That was less than the 835,000 median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists. Without adjustments, claims dropped by 31,736.

Continuing claims for state programs, which roughly correlates to the total number of people receiving state unemployment benefits, also decreased, to 5.22 million in the week ended Dec. 19. Economists projected an increase to 5.37 million.

Underscoring the pandemic’s damage to the job market as 2020 draws to a close, claims for benefits have averaged 1.45 million a week this year compared with about 220,000 in 2019.

The surprise decline in claims is a welcome sign, though the level remains elevated as economic fallout from the coronavirus continues to reverberate. While the stimulus package should cushion the blow of further shutdowns and closures, it may take some time for funds to reach consumers and without a widely available vaccine, is only a temporary measure.

Illinois, which reported a drop of more than 28,500 applications from the prior week, accounted for the lion’s share of the overall decline in unadjusted claims.

Still, a pickup in the number of jobless applications in the first half of December highlights economist expectations for a worsening labor market in winter as colder weather forces restaurants and retailers to close or cut hours, while an increase in COVID-19 cases prompts tougher measures in various states.

The December jobs report, released next week, is projected to be on the weaker side. Economists forecast a gain of about 70,000 jobs, the fewest since April when payrolls declined. Several analysts forecast headcounts shrank.

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