Jobless claims down 19,000, still 4 times pre-pandemic level

A "Now Hiring" sign hangs on the front wall of a Harbor Freight Tools store, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell by 19,000 to a still-high 787,000, evidence that the job market remains under stress as a resurgent coronavirus continues to batter the economy. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
A "Now Hiring" sign hangs on the front wall of a Harbor Freight Tools store, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell by 19,000 to a still-high 787,000, evidence that the job market remains under stress as a resurgent coronavirus continues to batter the economy. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits last week fell by 19,000 to 787,000, still a historically high level as a resurgent coronavirus maintains its grip on the U.S. economy.

While at the lowest level in four weeks, the figures released Thursday by the Labor Department are nearly four times higher than last year at this time before the coronavirus struck. Employers continue to cut jobs as rising infections keep many people at home and state and local governments re-impose tighter restrictions on businesses and public activities.

Jobless claims were running around 225,000 per week before the pandemic struck with force last March when weekly jobless claims surged to 6.9 million and sent U.S. economy into a deep recession.

The total number of people receiving traditional unemployment benefits fell by 103,000 to 5.2 million for the week ending Dec. 19. That's still far greater than the 1.7 million a year ago when the unemployment rate was hovering around a half-century low of 3.9%.

Unemployment claims peaked in May at 25.9 million.

The four-week average for claims which smooths out weekly variations rose last week to 836,750, an increase of 17,750 from the previous week.

Economists believe that the holidays, in addition to broad confusion over the status of a COVID-19 relief package, suppressed applications for benefits last week, so the numbers may be worse than they appear.

Congress finally passed a $900 billion relief bill that would boost benefit payments and extend two unemployment assistance programs tied to job losses from the pandemic. However, President Donald Trump called the measure a “disgrace” and refused to sign off until Sunday, a one-week delay that means many Americans in desperate need will have to wait longer for help.