Diners at a restaurant in Seattle on March 10, 2021. The economy, while still struggling amid the pandemic, is showing signs of growth as more people are vaccinated. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

The surge in unemployment filings in March 2020 provided one of the first clear warnings of the havoc the pandemic was wreaking on the U.S. economy.

One year later, that klaxon is still blaring.

More than 746,000 people filed first-time applications for state unemployment benefits last week, up 24,000 from the prior week, the Labor Department said Thursday. Another 282,000 filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, an emergency federal program that covers freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for benefits in normal times. Neither total is adjusted for seasonal trends.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the figure for initial state claims was 770,000.

Last week was the 52nd straight with elevated unemployment filings. In one week in March 2020, applications jumped tenfold, from fewer than 300,000 to about 3 million. A week later, they topped 6 million, as businesses across the country shut down.

The figures have fallen significantly since then but remain higher than in any previous recession, at least by some measures. And progress has stalled: Initial weekly claims under regular and emergency programs, combined, have been stuck at just above 1 million since last fall.

“It goes up a little bit, it goes down, but really we haven’t seen much progress,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for the career site Indeed. “A year into this, I’m starting to wonder, what is it going to take to fix the magnitude problem? How is this going to actually end?”

Most forecasters expect the labor market recovery to accelerate in coming months, as warmer weather and rising vaccination rates allow more businesses to reopen, and as new government aid encourages Americans to go out and spend. Policymakers at the Federal Reserve said Wednesday that they expected the unemployment rate to fall to 4.5% by the end of the year, a significant upgrade over the 5% they forecast three months ago.

“We’re already starting to see improvement now, and I think that will start to accelerate fairly quickly,” said Daniel Zhao, an economist at the career site Glassdoor. He called the increase in claims last week a “hiccup,” possibly caused by data quirks in specific states, rather than a more serious sign of erosion in the job market.

A rebound can’t come too soon for rising share of job seekers who are classified as long-term unemployed. As of late February, millions of people were enrolled in federal extended-benefit programs that cover people who have exhausted their regular benefits, which last for six months in most states. The aid package signed by President Joe Biden last week ensures that those programs will continue until fall, but benefits alone won’t prevent the damage that prolonged joblessness can do to workers’ careers and mental and physical health.

“The recovery needs to be on the scale of being a once-in-a-generation economic upswing to really pull those people back into the labor market,” Konkel said.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company

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