Unemployment claims jumped last week, as the delta variant of the coronavirus sparked rising caseloads around the country and renewed fears about the potential for more restrictions and business closures.
The number of new claims grew to 419,000 from 368,000, the third time in six weeks that they had ticked up, according to data from the Department of Labor.
Economists said the uptick was concerning but cautioned that it was too early to tell whether it was a one week aberration or telegraphed a more concerning turn for the labor market.
“The unexpected bump in claims could be noise in the system, but it’s also not hard to see how the rise of the covid-19 delta variant could add thousands of layoffs to numbers that already are double what they were pre-Covid,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
Overall, unemployment numbers have been falling gradually from the peaks at other stages of the pandemic, but they are still well above pre-pandemic averages.
The jobless numbers have provided a jarring catalogue about the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic — spiking to records as the pandemic unfolded in March 2020, and remaining at historic high levels throughout most of 2020.
The coronavirus surge last fall helped precipitate a rise in claims that saw the labor market, as seen in the monthly jobs report, slide backward too.
But until recently, the last few months been marked by strong jobs growth and a sense of optimism as vaccinations picked up, giving economists hope that the country was back on track to recovering the nearly 7 million jobs it is still down from before the pandemic.
Now, the delta variant is driving an alarming increase in covid-19 cases around the country, according to public health officials: the number of new cases increased more than 40 percent in the last week, sending jitters through the stock market, and is raising questions about whether state and local health authorities will reinstitute restrictions to slow the virus’ spread.
Frick said that the report showed the potential for unemployment claims to start trending upward after months of steady declines.
“There’s definitely a correlation, however loose, that the rise in covid does cause a rise in claims,” he said. “My fear is that the rise in the delta variant could cause claims to go back up…Certainly one week doesn’t show that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see claims rise.”
Texas for example, where cases have grown 54 percent in the last week, lead the way with an increase of 10,000 new claims.
However, there are also lots of signs that the economy continues to rebound despite rising caseloads.
The more than 2.2 million people that the Transportation Security Administration said it screened at airports on Sunday was the most since late February 2020 — and nearly three times the amount it was on the same day last year.
Restaurant dining has largely rebounded in recent months, at times surpassing the levels from before the pandemic — on Saturday the number of diners was 1 percent higher than the same day in 2019, according to data from Open Table.
Last week, some 12.5 million claims were filed for unemployment insurance overall, according to the most recent numbers — down from 32.9 million filed at the same point last year.
Nevada, Rhode Island and California topped the list of states with the highest number of people on unemployment, the Labor Department said.
Economic concerns in recent months have been more focused on the ways that workers are still held back from filling some of the more than 9 million job openings in the country, than unemployment, with high hopes that school re-openings in the fall will help many parents get back into the labor force.