First-time claims for U.S. unemployment compensation edged higher again last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, as the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to play havoc with the world’s largest economy.

A total of 362,000 jobless workers filed for assistance, up 11,000 from the revised figure of the week before, the third straight week the figure moved higher. The increase last week was at odds with projections of economists, who had predicted a declining number.

Still, the claims figures for the last month have been on the whole the lowest since the pandemic swept through the U.S. in March 2020, although they remain well above the 218,000 average in 2019.

The increase in unemployment compensation claims comes as the U.S. government in early September ended extra $300-a-week payments to jobless workers on top of often less generous state benefits.

The jobless claims total has fallen steadily but unevenly since topping 900,000 in early January. Filings for unemployment compensation have often been seen as a current reading of the country’s economic health, but other statistics are also relevant barometers.

Even as the U.S. said last month that its world-leading economy grew by an annualized rate of 6.6% in the April-to-June period, in August it only added a disappointing 235,000 jobs, a figure economists said was partly reflective of the surging delta variant of the coronavirus inhibiting job growth. The September jobs figure is due out in a week.

The August total was down sharply from the more than 2 million combined figure added in June and July. The unemployment rate dipped to 5.2%, which is still nearly two percentage points higher than before the pandemic started in March 2020.

About 8.7 million workers remain unemployed in the U.S. There are nearly 11 million available jobs in the country, but the skills of the available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live.

The size of the U.S. economy – nearly $23 trillion – now exceeds its pre-pandemic level as it recovers faster than many economists had predicted during the worst of the business closings more than a year ago. Policy makers at the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank, have signaled that in November they could start reversing the bank’s pandemic stimulus programs and next year could begin to increase its benchmark interest rate.

How fast the U.S. economic growth continues is unclear, with the delta variant of the coronavirus posing a threat to the recovery. In recent weeks, about 120,000 or more new cases have been identified each day in the U.S. and on some days more than 2,000 people have been dying from COVID-19.  

Political disputes have erupted in numerous states between conservative Republican governors who have resisted imposing mandatory face mask and vaccination rules in their states at schools and businesses, although some education and municipal leaders are advocating tougher rules to try to prevent the spread of the delta variant.

U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered workers at companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for the coronavirus. In addition, he is requiring 2.5 million national government workers and contractors who work for the government to get vaccinated if they haven’t already been inoculated.

Many companies imposed their own vaccination mandates before Biden acted and are now starting to fire workers who have balked at getting vaccinated.

Nearly 67% of U.S. adults have now been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and overall, 55.5% of the U.S. population of 332 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

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