Applications for jobless benefits rose last week across the country while Utah labor markets appeared to be headed on a different course.

Six months after the coronavirus pandemic first rocked the U.S. economy, the Beehive State continues to see its unemployment levels fall, with the fewest number of residents yet seeking weekly assistance due to layoffs or furloughs.

About 825,000 Americans filed for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That is up from 796,000 a week earlier, although it is far below the more than 6 million people a week who were filing for benefits during the peak period of layoffs in the spring.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

In Utah, 4,477 residents sought jobless aid the week ending Sept. 19, only a slight uptick from the prior week and well down from a pandemic peak of 33,000 first-time weekly claims at the beginning of April. Ongoing claims in Utah are now at 47,839, their lowest level since an early May high of 125,000 as the health crisis was hitting employment hard.

The state’s overall unemployment rate was estimated at 4.1% for August, compared to the latest projection of 8.6% for the nation as a whole.

Last week also saw ongoing requests for state benefits from freelancers, self-employed workers and other independent contractors fall to their lowest levels since mid-April, at 4,854 claims. That number topped 18,480 Utahns in early May, shortly after the emergency federal program known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance began covering those workers for the first time.

Labor officials say the program has been plagued by fraud and double-counting, and many economists are not sure the data is reliable.

By any measure, however, hundreds of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs each week, and millions more laid off earlier in the crisis are still relying on unemployment benefits to meet their basic expenses. Applications for benefits remain higher than at the peak of many past recessions, and after falling quickly in the spring, the number has declined only slowly in recent weeks.

“Compared to April, they’re trending down, but if you’re comparing to the pre-COVID era they are still so high,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist for the career site Indeed.

In Utah, the leisure and hospitality, mining and retail sectors continue to shed jobs while the construction and trade and utility industries have gained positions in recent months.

Experts worried the picture could worsen in coming months. Konkel said warm weather had allowed many businesses to shift operations outdoors and that restaurants in particular are likely to begin laying off workers again as colder weather reaches northern states.

“We’re losing steam, which is definitely not good heading into the winter,” she said.

Thursday’s labor reports marked 27 weeks since the flood of layoffs began in mid-March. In most states, workers qualify for a maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment payments, meaning that workers who lost their jobs early in the crisis have begun to see their benefits expire.

An emergency program established by Congress in March offers an additional 13 weeks of benefits for most workers. And a separate federal program will provide extended benefits after that if the unemployment rate remains elevated. But experts on the unemployment system said there was a risk that benefits for some workers would lapse at least temporarily.

Utah has about 9,190 workers on extended benefits, down from nearly 10,000 at the end of August.

~ Salt Lake Tribune reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this report.