1.9 million seek jobless aid even as reopenings slow layoffs

FILE - In this May 21, 2020, file photo, a worker looks over an electronic slot machine as chairs have been removed from some machines to maintain social distancing between players at a closed Caesars Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Cards will be cut, dice will roll and jackpots jingle when casinos in Las Vegas and Nevada begin reopening at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, June 4. There will be big splashes, even amid ongoing unrest, and big hopes for recovery from an unprecedented and expensive closure prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
FILE - In this May 21, 2020, file photo, a worker looks over an electronic slot machine as chairs have been removed from some machines to maintain social distancing between players at a closed Caesars Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Cards will be cut, dice will roll and jackpots jingle when casinos in Las Vegas and Nevada begin reopening at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, June 4. There will be big splashes, even amid ongoing unrest, and big hopes for recovery from an unprecedented and expensive closure prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/John Locher, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Nearly 1.9 million people applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week, evidence that many employers are still cutting jobs even as the gradual reopening of businesses has slowed the pace of layoffs.

The total number of people who are receiving jobless aid rose slightly to 21.5 million, down from a peak of nearly 25 million two weeks ago but still at a historically high level. It shows that scattered rehiring is offsetting only some of the ongoing layoffs with the economy mired in a recession. Thursday's latest weekly number from the Labor Department is still more than double the record high that prevailed before the viral outbreak.

Still, the number of people who applied for benefits last week marked the ninth straight decline since applications spiked in mid-March. The job market meltdown that was triggered by the coronavirus may have bottomed out as more companies call at least some of their former employees back to work.

Economists said they were disappointed, though, that the number of first-time applications for jobless aid and the total number of people receiving benefits remain so high.

“While the drop in new claims is welcome news and more evidence that the worst of the job losses are behind us, the recovery in the labor market is expected to be painfully slow,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “We look for a two-phase recovery, with an initial burst in rehiring followed by a much slower retracement of job losses.

Fewer people sought jobless aid last week in 47 states and in Washington, D.C., while the number rose in just California, Florida and Mississippi. The total number of people receiving aid fell in 37 states and in D.C. and increased in 13 states.

Applications for jobless benefits are falling in states that had reopened their businesses early, such as Georgia and Texas, and are also declining in those that are still early in the reopening process, such as New York and Massachusetts.

Some businesses that have reopened have seen only a limited number of customers so far.