WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose for the third straight week, a sign that the highly contagious delta variant may be slowing the job market's recovery.
Claims rose by 11,000 last week to 362,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Since topping 900,000 in early January, applications had fallen fairly steadily as the economy bounced back from last year's shutdowns. But they've risen along with coronavirus infections.
The numbers, which are a proxy for layoffs, remain elevated: Before the pandemic hit the United States hard in March 2020, they were typically coming in at around 220,000 a week.
America's employers have rapidly increased their hiring since they slashed 22 million jobs in March and April 2020 as the coronavirus outbreak — and the shutdowns meant to contain it — brought economic activity to a near-standstill. Since then, the economy has recovered about 17 million jobs as the rollout of vaccines encouraged businesses to open and expand hours and Americans to return to bars, restaurants and hotels.
But hiring, which has averaged more than 585,000 jobs a month this year, slowed to just 235,000 in August as the delta variant disrupted the recovery. Restaurants and bars cut nearly 42,000 jobs last month as COVID-19 cases picked up, the first drop this year. Hiring is expected to pick up to more than 560,000 this month; the Labor Department issues the September jobs report on Oct. 8.
Altogether, 2.8 million Americans were receiving some type of jobless aid the week of Sept. 18, down by 18,000 from the week before. Earlier this month, the federal government stopped additional aid — including $300 a week on top of traditional state benefits — that was meant to ease the economic impact of the pandemic.