36 million have sought US unemployment aid since virus hit

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A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19 in Niles, Ill., Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly 3 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week as the viral outbreak led more companies to slash jobs even though most states have begun to let some businesses reopen under certain restrictions.

Roughly 36 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the two months since the coronavirus first forced millions of businesses to close their doors and shrink their workforces, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Still, the number of first-time applications has now declined for six straight weeks, suggesting that a dwindling number of companies are reducing their payrolls.

By historical standards, though, the latest tally shows that the number of weekly jobless claims remains enormous, reflecting an economy that is sinking into a severe downturn. Last week’s pace of new applications for aid is still four times the record high that prevailed before the coronavirus struck hard in March.

Jobless workers in some states are still reporting difficulty applying for or receiving benefits. These include free-lance, gig and self-employed workers, who became newly eligible for jobless aid this year.

The states that are now easing lockdowns are doing so in varied ways. Ohio has permitted warehouses, most offices, factories, and construction companies to reopen, but restaurants and bars remain closed for indoor sit-down service.

A handful of states have gone further, including Georgia, which has opened barber shops, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and gyms. South Carolina has reopened beach hotels, and Texas has reopened shopping malls.

Data from private firms suggest that some previously laid-off workers have started to return to small businesses in those states, though the number of applications for unemployment benefits remains high.

The latest jobless claims follow a devastating jobs report last week. The government said the unemployment rate soared to 14.7% in April, the highest rate since the Great Depression, and employers shed a stunning 20.5 million jobs. A decade’s worth of job growth was wiped out in a single month.

Even those figures failed to capture the full scale of the damage. The government said many workers in April were counted as employed but absent from work but should have been counted as temporarily unemployed.

Millions of other laid-off workers didn’t look for a new job in April, likely discouraged by their prospects in a mostly shuttered economy, and weren’t included, either. If all those people had been counted as unemployed, the jobless rate would have reached nearly 24%.

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