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Job seekers exercise social distancing as they wait to be called into the Heartland Workforce Solutions office in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

US jobless claims fall below 1 million but remain high

Job seekers exercise social distancing as they wait to be called into the Heartland Workforce Solutions office in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The number of Americans applying for unemployment dropped below one million last week for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak took hold in the US five months ago, but layoffs are still running extraordinarily high.

A price sign is displayed at a retail store as a store employee wears a mask while working in Niles, Illonois on Juy 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

The figures show that the crisis continues to throw people out of work just as the expiration of an extra US$600 a week in federal jobless benefits has deepened the hardship for many — and posed another threat to the U.S. economy.

Applications for jobless benefits declined to 963,000, the second straight drop, from 1.2 million the previous week, the government said Thursday. That signals layoffs are slowing, though the weekly figure still far exceeds the pre-outbreak record of just under 700,000, set in 1982.

The virus is blamed for more than 166,000 deaths and 5.2 million confirmed infections in the US — easily the highest totals in the world. The average number of new cases per day is on the rise in eight states, and deaths per day are climbing in 26, according to an Associated Press analysis.

A customer leaves a Pier 1 retail store, which is going out of business, during the coronavirus pandemic in Coral Gables, Florida on August 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Worldwide, the scourge has claimed more than 750,000 lives and caused over 20 million known infections.

The virus, the shutdowns meant to fight it and the reluctance or inability of many people to shop, travel or eat out continue to undermine the economy and force companies to cut staff. Over the past few months, 23 states have paused or reversed their business re-openings because of a resurgence of the virus.

Overall, fewer people are collecting unemployment, a sign that some employers are hiring. The total declined last week to 15.5 million, from 16.1 million the previous week.

Hiring is believed to have slowed since the spring, when states reopened and millions of workers at bars, restaurants and stores were rehired. The job gain in August will probably fall short of the 1.8 million added in July, analysts say.

Job seekers exercise social distancing as they wait to be called into the Heartland Workforce Solutions office in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

For months, on top of their state benefit, unemployed Americans also collected the US$600 a week in federal jobless aid. But that expired at the end of July, and negotiations in Congress to extend it, probably at a lower level, have collapsed in rancor.

Last week, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that would provide US$300 a week to replace the expired US$600. But experts say it could take weeks for the states to reprogram their computers and process and dispense the payments.

A crush of benefit applications earlier in the outbreak resulted in huge backlogs that left millions of the unemployed waiting. Washington state went so far as to call in the National Guard to help process applications.

Some economists say they believe the end of the US$600 has contributed to the drop in unemployment claims of late. Some of the unemployed may feel less incentive to apply.

The supplemental federal aid had enabled many jobless Americans to afford rent, food and utilities, and its expiration threatens to weaken consumer spending.

In addition to people who applied last week for state benefits, nearly 489,000 others sought jobless aid under a new federal program that has made self-employed and gig workers eligible for the first time. That figure isn’t adjusted for seasonal trends, so it is reported separately.

Counting those receiving aid under the new program would bring to 28.2 million — roughly 18% of the US workforce — the number of Americans now receiving some form of unemployment benefits.

With confirmed virus cases still high, it’s not clear when business owners will be able to reopen or will have enough customers to rehire.