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Unemployment Down Slightly, But Still High As Virus Escalates

A shopper wears a face mask and he walks past a store displaying a hiring sign in Wheeling, Ill., Nov. 28, 2020. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
A shopper wears a face mask and he walks past a store displaying a hiring sign in Wheeling, Ill., Nov. 28, 2020. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

First-time unemployment claims are down in Massachusetts for the third straight week, according to the latest data from the U.S. Labor Department.

A little over 31,000 claims were filed last week, including traditional unemployment and claims filed by gig workers and independent contractors. It marks the smallest weekly total reported since mid-September, and a decrease of more than 6,300 claims from the week before Thanksgiving.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell last week to a still-high 712,000, the latest sign that the U.S. economy and job market remain under stress from the intensified viral outbreak.

The Labor Department said that national initial claims for jobless aid dropped from 787,000 the week before. Before the virus paralyzed the economy in March, the number of people applying for unemployment benefits each week had typically amounted to roughly 225,000. The chronically high pace of applications shows that nearly nine months after the pandemic struck, many employers are still slashing jobs.

The total number of people who are continuing to receive traditional state unemployment benefits declined to 5.5 million from 6.1 million. That figure is down sharply from its peak of nearly 23 million in May. It means that some jobless Americans are finding jobs and no longer receiving aid. But it also indicates that many of the unemployed have used up their state benefits, which typically expire after six months.

With layoffs still elevated and new confirmed viral cases in the U.S. now exceeding 160,000 a day on average, the economy’s modest recovery is increasingly in danger. States and cities are issuing mask mandates, limiting the size of gatherings, restricting restaurant dining, closing gyms or reducing the hours and capacity of bars, stores and other businesses.

Most experts say the economy won't be able to sustain a recovery until the virus is brought under control with an effective and widely used vaccine.

Many jobless Americans are now collecting checks under two federal programs that were set up this year to ease the economic pain inflicted by the pandemic. But those programs are set to expire the day after Christmas. When they do, benefits will end completely for an estimated 9.1 million unemployed people.

With reporting from The Associated Press' Paul Wiseman and WBUR's Sara-Rose Brenner

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