Weekly Jobless Claims Reach a Pandemic Low, but Many Workers Continue to Struggle

by Maurie Backman | Updated July 25, 2021 - First published on March 26, 2021

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A line of people standing in front of a building labeled Job Center.

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New unemployment claims came in lower than expected last week, but we're not out of the woods yet.

Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. While the jobless rate has fallen substantially from the record high it hit in April, there are still a large number of people who can't find work. Last week, however, there was some encouraging news on the unemployment front. New jobless claims totaled 684,000, which is, to be clear, a very large number. However, it's the smallest number of weekly claims since the pandemic began.

Now for context, back in April of 2020, new weekly jobless claims at one point hit 6.6 million. In September, they averaged around 1 million. To see that number drop below 700,000 for the first time in a year is a positive thing. But we still can't ignore that a lot of Americans are struggling financially, and that the joblessness crisis is far from over.

Unemployed workers need relief

A one-week tally of 684,000 new jobless claims may seem modest when we compare that total to last April's numbers. But during the previous recession, the highest level that weekly unemployment claims reached was 655,000. In other words, it's easy to look at a week of lower jobless claims and take it as a sign that the economy is starting to improve. But that's just a week's worth of data we're talking about. And our most "positive" week of the pandemic is still worse than the worst week of the last financial crisis.

Now, the good news is that thanks to the recently-signed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, jobless workers are entitled to a number of provisions that could help them get through the pandemic. First, unemployment benefits are boosted by $300 a week through early September -- a move that will help many low or moderate earners on unemployment replace the bulk of their income. Second, there's a round of $1,400 stimulus payments in the works. And many Americans have already seen that money land in their bank accounts. That influx of cash could help a lot of unemployed workers cover some pressing bills.

Finally, the relief bill provides subsidies for COBRA, a program that lets people who lose employer health insurance keep that coverage for up to 18 months. COBRA is notoriously expensive -- those who sign up for it pay the full, nonsubsidized rate for their health insurance, which can be downright prohibitive. Now, the government is willing to pick up that tab so jobless workers can keep their health insurance without worrying about how to afford it.

All of this relief is a good thing. Still, jobless workers shouldn't hesitate to seek out additional coronavirus resources for financial help, whether it means asking their credit card companies to defer payments or asking their landlords for a temporary rent reduction. The unemployment crisis may be improving, but it's still alive and kicking, and jobless workers should be eager to go after all the help they can get.

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