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Jobless Claims Jump To More Than 850,000

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A new sign of economic woes for Americans during this pandemic. Unemployment claims reported this morning by the government jumped to more than 850,000. That is a worrisome increase. And this comes as many federal relief programs are set to expire. NPR's Scott Horsley has been covering this. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. Let's get to these worrisome numbers. What are they telling us?

HORSLEY: Well, that 853,000 figure you mentioned, that is for the regular state unemployment claims. That's up by 137,000 from the previous week. There's a separate federal program for gig workers and the self-employed, the people who are ordinarily not eligible for unemployment insurance. Those claims were also up sharply last week. They rose 139,000 to 427,000. So if you put those together, we're closing in on 1.3 million new people who filed for unemployment assistance last week.

GREENE: And what can we read from that about the state of the economy right now?

HORSLEY: Well, we should say that these numbers are noisy, and there have been some reporting issues with them. The Government Accountability Office raised some red flags about the way these numbers are collected. So you don't want to put too much stock in any one week's number. And the week before, these numbers had actually gone down. But certainly a sharp increase like the one we're seeing for last week suggests that there has been a slowdown in economic activity as the number of new coronavirus infections has been spiking all around the country. We know that lots of local governments have imposed new restrictions on dining and gyms and other kinds of businesses where there are potential - where there's the potential to spread the coronavirus. And even in the absence of those kinds of government restrictions, we also know that consumers just get wary about going out and spending money when we see, you know, hospitalizations and deaths rising the way they have been. So this is likely a sign of genuine economic stress caused by the soaring pandemic numbers.

GREENE: Well, I mean, you would be logical to think that if the pandemic is still bad and people are out of work and these numbers look bad, some of these federal relief programs that have been helping people might be extended. I mean, do the current relief talks in Congress include restarting some of these programs?

HORSLEY: They do. We should mention, you know, some folks have already been exhausting their regular state unemployment. Those state unemployment benefits typically run for six months. And we are, of course, well past the six-month mark in this pandemic and past the six-month mark since the big shutdowns in the spring. So millions of people have already exhausted their regular state unemployment benefits and rolled on to an emergency 13-week extension that was passed as part of the CARES Act. Now, that extension is also set to expire at the end of this month, as is that special federal program for gig workers and the self-employed. And looking at these numbers right now, as of November 21, there were about 13 million people - more than 13 million people who were relying on that emergency unemployment aid that is set to expire on the day after Christmas. So those folks are going to be in a world of hurt if Congress does not act to extend those programs.

GREENE: And there's, of course, a lot of debate right now among lawmakers about what exactly is the best way to help the economy.

HORSLEY: That's right. But economists tell us that unemployment benefits deliver some of the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to propping up the economy. Dollar for dollar, there's really not many better ways for the federal government to put a support system under families and businesses than extending unemployment benefits.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks as always, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.