Thousands in Utah, U.S. seek jobless benefits as the coronavirus continues to hobble economy

(LM Otero | AP file photo) In this Sept. 2, 2020 file photo, a customer wears a face mask as they carry their order past a now hiring sign at an eatery in Richardson, Texas. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to 751,000, the lowest since March, but it's still historically high and indicates the viral pandemic is still forcing many employers to cut jobs.

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell slightly last week to 751,000, a still-historically high level that shows that many employers keep cutting jobs in the face of the accelerating pandemic.

A surge in viral cases and Congress' failure so far to provide more aid for struggling individuals and businesses are threatening to deepen Americans' economic pain. Eight months after the pandemic flattened the economy, weekly jobless claims still point to a stream of layoffs.

Before the virus struck in March, the weekly figure had remained below 300,000 for more than five straight years.

Utahns filed 3,866 new claims for unemployment the week ending Oct. 31, according to the latest data, the lowest since the health crisis first reached state borders in mid-March — but that level is still about four times higher than a typical week prior to the pandemic.

The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday the number of people who are continuing to receive traditional unemployment benefits declined to 7.3 million. Those ongoing jobless claims in the Beehive State have fallen every week since a May peak of 127,530 and now stand at 31,239, new data shows.

The combined trends indicate that some of those laid off or furloughed due to COVID-19 are being recalled to their old jobs or are finding new ones. The state of Utah has been on a multi-week push urging those receiving benefits to step up their employment searches and connect with thousands of available jobs, warning that federal aid related to the pandemic is about to expire.

But the new numbers also show that many jobless Americans have used up their state unemployment aid — which typically runs out after six months — and have transitioned to a federal extended benefits program that lasts an additional 13 weeks.

According to the state Department of Workforce Services, nearly 8,373 residents remained on those extended benefits as of last week. Another 3,075 workers in Utah continue to draw aid under a first-ever program extending benefits to self-employed and gig workers.

Job markets have been under pressure since the virus paralyzed the economy and the U.S. has regained barely half the 22 million jobs that were lost to the pandemic in early spring. The pace of rehiring has steadily weakened — from 4.8 million added jobs in June to 661,000 in September. On Friday, when the government issues the October jobs report, economists foresee a further slowdown — to 580,000 added jobs — according to a survey by the data firm FactSet.

Utah’s unemployment rate was at about 5% in September, significantly below the national level of 7.9%, and state officials say there are at least 30,000 job openings currently available.

“Utah’s economy continues to recover and prove to be very resilient,” Kevin Burt, director of Utah’s unemployment insurance system, said Thursday.

Burt added, however, that the state is expecting a seasonal increase in claims as winter approaches as well as continued employment disruptions from the pandemic.

Without additional federal aid, millions of unemployed Americans likely will lose all their jobless benefits in coming weeks and months, probably forcing them to scale back their spending. And many small companies could go out of business.