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For first time during pandemic, new jobless claims rise by less than 1 million

It's the first time in 20 weeks the nation has seen under a seven-figure increase in initial unemployment claims.
Immigrant activists urge the US Senate to extend the $600 unemployment insurance, small business loan grants, and extend cash relief to previously excluded essential working immigrants on Aug. 6, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Immigrant activists urge the US Senate to extend the $600 unemployment insurance, small business loan grants, and extend cash relief to previously excluded essential working immigrants on Aug. 6, 2020, in Las Vegas. [ JOE BUGLEWICZ | AP ]
Published Aug. 13, 2020
Updated Aug. 13, 2020

For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic sent the economy into a tailspin, the number of Americans filing new unemployment claims last week rose by less than 1 million.

The 963,000 initial claims during the week of Aug. 2-8 are still far more than any in a week before the pandemic, but far down from a peak of 6.87 million in April.

Florida’s tally of new claims dropped to 55,106, its fourth straight weekly decline and the lowest number of any week of the pandemic — but still significantly higher than any other week on record.

Despite these improvements, a majority of Floridians remain wary about life returning to normal. Fifty-five percent of residents believe the worst of the coronavirus is still to come, according to a University of South Florida report published Thursday, and 85 percent still support stricter limits on public gatherings.

“Floridians are giving leaders permission to dial things back,” said USF associate professor Stephen Neely, one of the report’s authors. “They’re giving leaders permission to take the steps necessary to protect them, knowing that that’s going to cause some pain in other areas.”

Thursday’s job claims numbers are the first to emerge from a full week in August, during which Congress has been deadlocked over how to keep economic aid flowing to the unemployed.

One sign the government’s purse strings have tightened: Throughout July and into August, the total unemployment insurance doled out by the state jumped by about $1 billion per week. Over the last week, the tally rose by a little more than half that, with $13.6 billion going to 1.87 million Floridians.

A big reason for that is the end, in late July, of weekly $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments, which made up the largest percentage of all aid distributed. Fewer of those payments are still trickling through, as Floridians continue receiving backed-up claims from spring and summer.

President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order to continue paying the jobless $400 per week, including $300 from the federal government, although it’s unclear if or when the order might come to bear. Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that the plan is “not an option for us in Florida.”

Related: What payroll tax holiday and unemployment orders mean to you: PolitiFact

There remains strong support for the $600 payments to continue in full, said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, a nonpartisan watchdog group that’s been tracking government spending since the start of the coronavirus. Trump’s plan to cut payments to $300, partially by diverting some funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is “unworkable,” he said.

“It’s really unclear how soon that money would even reach struggling families, given the challenges that money is probably going to face, likely in the courts,” Herrig said. “We’re hearing from labor experts that it could take more than a month. Even if the order managed to be put in full effect, it would still amount to a deep $300 benefit cut, leaving workers who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own with less money for their families.”

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On Monday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employers advertised 5.9 million jobs in late June, a sign businesses were willing to hire as the economy reopened. That number was up slightly from May, but still down from February. Likewise, the nation added nearly 1.8 million jobs in July, but overall employment remains far below what it was just before the pandemic.

Jacksonville-based Stein Mart, which has 10 locations in Tampa Bay, announced Wednesday that it was filing for bankruptcy protection and closing most of its stores.

Related: Stein Mart files for bankruptcy, closing most stores

In June, Stein Mart received a $10 million Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government. The fact that it’s going out of business so soon after seeking that money raises more questions about whether the government’s money really is going to those need it most.

“If we’re going to throw money into businesses, we should also be throwing money to people that used to have jobs at businesses before this crisis,” Herrig said. “We should be ensuring that everyday Americans are able to weather the crisis.”

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