More than four months after Americans began emerging from the coronavirus-caused lockdown across most states, the job market remains treacherous, according to new data from the Labor Department.
More than 857,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment insurance last week, before seasonal adjustments, a slight increase from the previous week. Although the unemployment rate has fallen to 8.4 percent, the level of layoffs reflects the challenges for many workers in the fitful recovery.
On a seasonally adjusted basis, the total was 884,000, unchanged from the revised figure for the previous week.
In addition, about 839,000 new claims were filed under a federal program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides assistance to freelancers, part-time workers and others who do not ordinarily qualify for state benefits. That figure, which is not seasonally adjusted, represented a rise from 748,000 the previous week.
“It’s a gut punch to see these numbers every Thursday with no improvement,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton in Chicago. “The numbers are going in the wrong direction.”
Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays, said the latest numbers “are part of a transition to a slower pace of recovery, and one that will be more uneven.”
All told, nearly 30 million people were receiving unemployment benefits in some form in the week that ended Aug. 22.
A wild card in the outlook is congressional standoff over another coronavirus relief package. House Democrats passed a $3 trillion bill in May, which Republicans rejected as fiscally irresponsible. Senate Republicans are pushing a proposal worth up to $700 billion, which Democrats say doesn’t go nearly far enough. About half the money would come from unused funding in the stimulus law enacted in March.
That package included $600 in supplemental weekly unemployment payments, which kept many families afloat before it expired in July. Democrats favor reviving it in full; the Republican bill calls for halving the amount. President Trump ordered a stopgap $300-a-week replacement last month through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it has been slow to get off the ground and has funds for only a few weeks.
Eighteen states have begun making the payments, said Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. “It would have been so much easier and faster if Congress would have passed an extension,” she said.
Century 21, the famous New York discount store chain, said Thursday that it had been forced to file for bankruptcy and would close all 13 of its locations after its insurance providers refused to pay about $175 million to the business.
The insurance money was for “policies put in place to protect against losses stemming from business interruption such as that experienced as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Century 21 said in a release. The chain said that it would wind down its retail operations and start store-closing sales on its website and in its locations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Century 21, founded in downtown Manhattan in 1961 by two cousins, Sonny and Al Gindi, quickly became known as a destination for designer goods at bargain prices. It was a pioneer of the now-ubiquitous off-price shopping model, which includes national chains like Ross, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Century 21 became a New York institution; its website cites the designer Zac Posen saying that the retailer represented his “introduction to shopping for fashion,” and the store was commonly referenced in pop culture, including in shows like HBO’s “Sex and the City.”
“The next day the verdict was in. Century 21, the downtown discount store, was the best part of jury duty,” the character Carrie Bradshaw said in a voice-over in one “Sex and the City” episode, as she walked through the retailer. Raymond Gindi, a co-chief executive and a son of a founder, said that unlike the period after the Sept. 11 attacks, “our insurers, to whom we have paid significant premiums every year for protection against unforeseen circumstances like we are experiencing today, have turned their backs on us at this most critical time.”
He added: “While retailers across the board have suffered greatly due to Covid-19, and Century 21 is no exception, we are confident that had we received any meaningful portion of the insurance proceeds, we would have been able to save thousands of jobs and weather the storm, in hopes of another incredible recovery.”
Century 21 joins a long list of companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection as the coronavirus pandemic devastates the retail industry. Others include Brooks Brothers, J.C. Penney, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus and Sur la Table. Lord & Taylor, another New York institution, is also liquidating.
Gig workers, freelancers and the self-employed have long been left to their own devices when work runs out. The emergency aid package passed by Congress in March supplied them with a safety net — and a surge in filings for the benefit is raising questions about whether such workers are being left behind in the recovery.
From Aug. 8 to Aug. 22, the total of those collecting benefits under the program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, rose to 14.6 million from less than 11 million. The increase means workers on the federal program exceeded those receiving regular state unemployment benefits.
“The story among gig workers and part-timers has become more grim in recent weeks,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
The reason for the surge in claims from those outside the traditional unemployment insurance system is uncertain, he said, but it is consistent with private data showing an overall decline in small-business employment. And for many caught in the maw of the coronavirus economy, the program has been a lifeline.
Pedro Night, a D.J. in the Washington area, saw his livelihood fade as events and other gatherings were halted. “By April, it hit me, and I realized that we were definitely in this for the long haul,” he said.
He applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and in June, he started receiving $350 each week in benefits after taxes, in addition to a $600 federal supplement.
Although the supplement ended in late July, the basic payments have continued, giving him just enough for his share of the $750 monthly rent for an apartment in Rockville, Md., his $400 car payment and his $120 car insurance bill.
Robert Rooney was furloughed from his job as an engineer at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas on March 15, and then permanently laid off on Aug. 31. After the $600 federal supplement to weekly unemployment payments ran out, Mr. Rooney was left with $423 a week in Nevada unemployment benefits after taxes.
Mr. Rooney’s wife, Jennifer, is still working, but they believe they will be unable to pay the $1,200 rent for their two-bedroom house by the end of the year. They are considering selling one of their cars and have given up on buying a home, something they expected to do this fall.
They are using credit cards to pay for groceries, gas and the roughly $300 per month in medical costs for Mr. Rooney’s mother, who has a lung ailment. They are dipping into their small pot of savings — once reserved for the down payment on a house — for the minimum payments on their credit card bills.
Ms. Rooney was able to hang on to the entry-level job she got last year doing data entry at a local nonprofit organization. Her wages, at $12 per hour, are close to what she made 10 years ago, before earning her bachelor’s degree. She took the job with a pay cut, hoping to work her way up as she changed industries from her prior work in health care. But her paychecks alone are too scanty to keep the family afloat.
The couple, both 41, have had fertility challenges, and before the pandemic, they were looking into fertility treatments or adoption. Now, without Mr. Rooney’s job and with his company health insurance running out at the end of the month, they can’t afford either possibility.
“It’s really painful to think about what might have been,” he said. “The pandemic has taken all of that away.”
The Rooneys are planning to move to Texas by November to take advantage of lower housing costs and in hopes that he will have more luck finding work there.
For 10 years, Joe Braxton helped brands market themselves at events like South by Southwest and Comic-Con. But then the pandemic struck, events across the country were canceled, and Mr. Braxton found himself out of work.
Thanks to a job early in the year at an auto show, he qualified for unemployment benefits, including the $600 weekly federal supplement to unemployment insurance. That allowed him to keep paying the $1,200 in rent for his one-bedroom apartment in Bladensburg, Md.
But when the supplement ended in late July, he was left with just $100 per week in state benefits. With no other income, he could not afford his rent. His landlord allowed him to pay less than the full amount each month until he could find work. But car payments were a different matter.
Mr. Braxton, 40, has not been able to pay for his car loan or auto insurance — which together total $860 a month — and now he owes $2,700. In August, he was told that unless he paid $1,800 by the end of the month, his car would be repossessed. He was not able to do so, and now he waits for his car to be hauled away.
Mr. Braxton worries that without a car, he will have even more trouble finding work.
“Every day I wake up and I’m like, did they come pick it up yet?” he said. “I feel like I’m being punished by the pandemic, and it’s not even my fault.”
U.S. stocks gave up early gains on Thursday, as investors digested the outcome of a European Central Bank meeting and the latest tally of claims for jobless benefits in the United States.
The S&P 500 started the day with a gain, before falling back. European stocks slipped and Asian markets had a mixed day, with the Nikkei in Japan gaining 0.9 percent while the Shanghai Composite in China shed 0.6 percent.
More than 857,000 workers in the U.S. filed for state unemployment benefits last week, before seasonal adjustments, the Labor Department reported. The number of weekly claims has come down substantially from late March and April, but the figure remains extraordinarily high by historical standards.
Last week, the government reported that more than 833,000 people had filed new claims for state unemployment benefits, before seasonal adjustments.
On Thursday, policymakers at the European Central Bank concluded their monthly two-day meeting, without making any changes to their stimulus program or interest rates.
On Wednesday, stocks on Wall Street rebounded from a three-day rout that had pulled the S&P 500 down 7 percent from its record high, with the index gaining more than 2 percent, its biggest single-day jump since early June. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite — which had dropped 10 percent over just three days — rose 2.7 percent.
The French luxury conglomerate LVMH moved on Thursday to bolster its argument for canceling its $16.2 billion takeover of Tiffany, arguing that the upscale jewelry chain violated the terms of their deal by mismanaging itself during the pandemic, today’s DealBook newsletter reports.
The move is meant to counter a lawsuit by Tiffany in Delaware compelling LVMH — home to Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Fendi and more — to complete the deal, which would be the luxury industry’s largest ever. The transaction, struck nine months ago, has become the subject of high drama and international intrigue, after LVMH claimed it was asked to delay completing the acquisition by the French government.
In a statement on Thursday, LVMH said that Tiffany violated contractual requirements to follow an ordinary course of business, including by paying out dividends to shareholders while it lost money during the pandemic. That lays the groundwork for a lawsuit by LVMH claiming the right to walk away from the deal, which is expected within days.
LVMH also plans to file for E.U. regulatory approval, which the conglomerate says undermines one of Tiffany’s main legal arguments: that it is intentionally slow-walking obtaining approval for the deal. Tiffany has argued for months that LVMH has dragged out the regulatory process as it sought to renegotiate a lower price for the transaction. It also plans to ask the Delaware court for LVMH to pay damages of about $2.5 million a day since July, when, the jeweler contends, the deal should have closed.
Left out of Thursday’s statement is any more clarity on a letter sent to LVMH by the French foreign ministry on Aug. 31, which asked the conglomerate not to close the Tiffany deal until January — well after the transaction’s late November deadline — as part of France’s effort to “dissuade the American authorities” from imposing threatened tariffs on luxury French goods.
LVMH argued that it could not proceed with the deal if it was ordered to pull back by government officials. LVMH’s chief financial officer, Jean Jacques Guiony, denied accusations that the company had sought help from the French government to get out of the deal, telling reporters yesterday: “You must be joking. Are you seriously suggesting that we procured the letter? I don’t even want to answer that question.” He later said that the letter had arrived unsolicited.
Some of Europe’s largest airlines have announced new cuts to their flying schedules.
After nearly all their planes were grounded in the early days of the pandemic, the airlines tentatively rebuilt their services in the summer as travel restrictions loosened in Europe to allow for vacations. But passenger demand has now fallen again in response to changing quarantine restrictions, as coronavirus cases rise in Britain and continental Europe.
IAG, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia, said on Thursday that it had seen “an overall leveling off of bookings” since July and expected to fly even less for the rest of this year and next year than it had previously forecast.
On Tuesday, easyJet said it would cut flights because “the constantly evolving government restrictions across Europe and quarantine measures in the U.K.” had eroded the confidence of customers to make travel plans. On Wednesday, Ryanair cut its target for passenger numbers by another 10 million for the fiscal year to March.
In Britain, airlines and airports have urged the government to adopt in-airport testing as a way to limit two-week quarantines for passengers returning from overseas. The list of countries exempt from quarantine rules keeps changing, and this week travelers returning from seven Greek islands were told they would need to quarantine. The government has responded that it doesn’t believe testing in airports will be effective at catching most positive cases, especially people recently infected on their journeys.
The latest reductions in flights signal how far away the airline industry is from recovering from the pandemic. IAG said it doesn’t expect passenger demand to return to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest. The airline group published details of its plan to raise 2.7 billion euros ($3.2 billion) by selling new shares to existing shareholders as a new chief executive took over this week.
BP said Thursday that it would pay $1.1 billion to Equinor for 50 percent stakes in leases for offshore wind sites that the Norwegian company holds off the coast of Long Island and New England. BP said that the areas have the potential to generate power for more than 2 million homes once developed. The London-based company is expected to outline further details of a push into low carbon energy next week.
J.C. Penney reached an agreement on Wednesday to sell its retail business to the mall operators Simon Property Group and Brookfield Property Partners, averting a liquidation that would have represented a significant failure in the retail industry. Simon and Brookfield will pay about $300 million in cash and assume $500 million in debt to buy J.C. Penney, lawyers for J.C. Penney said at a bankruptcy court hearing on Wednesday. A certain portion of the company’s stores and distribution centers will become two separate property companies, according to the hearing. In all, the deal values J.C. Penney at $1.75 billion, including the funds committed to support its business after it emerges from bankruptcy.
The $600-a-week jobless benefit supplement that Congress approved in March as part of the CARES Act has been widely credited by economists with keeping the economy functioning through the coronavirus pandemic.
With the supplement, which ended in July, most unemployed workers got more than they had earned in wages; without it, they fell short of their previous income. So did the supplement simply provide a lifeline, or did it discourage people from taking jobs?
The answer has consequences for tens of millions of Americans, particularly those on the lower end of the income ladder; for businesses trying to restore their operations; and for an economy that largely depends on the lifeblood of consumer spending.
The relief is not only a matter of contention among business owners; it is also at the center of an acrimonious debate in Congress that has held up agreement on a new aid package.
With the supplement, nearly seven in 10 jobless workers got a bigger payment from the government than from their previous employer, according to one study. On its face, choosing to get more money and not work seems more appealing than settling for less and working.
That’s the way Carl Livesay, vice president for operations of Maryland Thermoform in Baltimore, sees it. Before the pandemic, the low unemployment rate made hiring a struggle, but now, even with high unemployment rates, he said, “it’s worse than it’s ever been.”
There are, of course, examples that tell a different story — millions of them. In May, June and July, more than 9.3 million workers returned to a job, forgoing the generous unemployment benefits.
One reason is that people generally look ahead. “The latest results show that Americans rationally understand the greater long-term security of returning to work rather than relying on ongoing government assistance,” said Sonal Desai, chief investment officer of Franklin Templeton Fixed Income.
Britain’s sparsely populated offices have put the economy in a quandary. The dry cleaners, coffee shops, lunch places and clothing retailers specializing in suits that serve areas packed with offices are starved of their customers.
In a country that relies on consumer spending to fuel economic growth, the government and business lobby are urging people to return to their offices, pressuring civil servants to set an example, and in turn spend more money on food and travel and in city center shops.
“The economy needs to have people back at work,” Dominic Raab, a government minister, said on Sunday.
But the companies charged with responding to this call have discovered that they can function productively with their staff working at home, and many are not in the mood to ask employees to risk getting on crowded trains or buses to return to the office.
The City of London, the financial and legal hub, was the destination for more than half a million daily commuters before the pandemic. At the start of the month, many of the lunch chains were still unlit and locked, and the train stations were significantly quieter — so were the pubs.
“The people are just not coming back,” said Robert Cane, who has worked at a dry cleaners and shoe repair business in the City for the past six years.
Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, the district’s governing body, said that she was “very concerned” about the lack of foot traffic for the small businesses dependent on office workers, especially in the coming months as government support programs end. The corporation has offered rent holidays and business advice, but “it’s just a conundrum” for those businesses, Ms. McGuinness said.
“I do think there is a major challenge looming about unemployment rates and insolvency rates,” she said.