Roughly 2.1 million people applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week, a sign that companies are still slashing jobs in the face of a deep recession even as more businesses reopen and rehire some laid-off employees.
About 41 million people applied for aid since the virus outbreak intensified in March, though not all of them are still unemployed. The Labor Department’s report Thursday includes a count of all the people now receiving unemployment aid: 21 million. That is a rough measure of the number of currently unemployed Americans.
The national jobless rate was 14.7 percent in April, the highest since the Great Depression, and many economists expect it will near 20 percent in May. The April unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older was 13.6 percent.
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States are restarting their economies gradually by letting certain businesses — from gyms, retail shops and restaurants to hair and nail salons — reopen with some restrictions. As some of these employers, including automakers, have recalled a portion of their laid-off employees, the number of people receiving unemployment benefits has fallen.
First-time applications for unemployment aid, though still high by historical standards, have now fallen for eight straight weeks. In addition to those who applied last week, an additional 1.2 million applied under a new program for self-employed and gig workers, who are eligible for jobless aid for the first time.
Analysts are monitoring incoming economic data to gauge how consumers are responding as many retail establishments gradually reopen. Jobs won’t return in any significant way as long as Americans remain slow to resume spending at their previous levels. Data from Chase Bank credit and debit cards shows that consumers have slowly increased their spending since the government distributed stimulus checks in mid-April.
Most of that increase has occurred in online shopping, which recovered to pre-virus levels after having tumbled about 20 percent. But offline spending, which makes up the vast majority of consumer spending, is still down 35 percent from a year ago, according to Chase, after having plummeted 50 percent at its lowest point.