Job market remains grim even as U.S. tentatively reopens

A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19 in Niles, Ill., Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19 in Niles, Ill., Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Signs of renewed business activity are surfacing across the country as states gradually reopen economies and some businesses call a portion of their laid-off staffers back to work. Yet with millions more Americans seeking unemployment aid last week, the U.S. job market remains as bleak as it's been in decades.

More than 2.4 million laid-off workers filed for jobless benefits last week, the government said Thursday, the ninth straight week of outsize figures since the viral outbreak forced millions of businesses to closer their doors and shrink their workforces.

And while the number of weekly applications has slowed for seven straight weeks, they remain immense by any historical standard — roughly 10 times the typical figure that prevailed before the virus struck. Nearly 39 million people have applied for benefits since mid-March.

“There is little evidence that the reopening of the economy has, as yet, led to any sudden snap back in employment," said Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics.

Nearly half of Americans say that either their incomes have declined or they live with an adult who has lost pay through a job loss or reduced hours, the Census Bureau said in survey data released Wednesday. More than one-fifth of Americans had little or no confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent or mortgage on time, the survey found.

Most economists and business leaders say the lifting of restrictions on business activity won't likely be enough to spur significant hiring in the weeks and months ahead. Surveys suggest that consumers will remain wary of shopping, traveling, eating out or congregating in large groups until a vaccine is available or they're otherwise confident they can avoid infection.

For now, workers who do return to their jobs expect far fewer customers.

On Tuesday, Phillip Skunza will be back at his job as a waiter and bartender at the Happy Greek restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Skunza had been laid off in mid-March after the state shuttered all restaurants and bars.