Unemployment marches higher in Europe as pandemic grinds on

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Actor and theater director Aris Laskos poses outside the Theater of Neos Kosmos in Athens, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. Laskos based in Athens, hasn't worked since early February and received a one-off support check for 800 euros ($940) shortly after the country's economy was placed in lockdown in the spring due to the pandemic. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

FRANKFURT – Unemployment rose for a fifth straight month in Europe in August and is expected to grow further amid concern that extensive government support programs won't be able keep many businesses hit by coronavirus restrictions afloat forever.

The jobless rate increased to 8.1% in the 19 countries that use the euro currency, from 8.0% in July, official statistics showed Thursday. The number of people out of work rose by 251,000 during the month to 13.2 million.

While Europe's unemployment rate is still modest compared with the spike seen in many other countries, economists predict it could hit double digits in coming months as wage support programs expire. A resurgence in infections in many countries has meanwhile led to new restrictions on businesses and public life that may have to be broadened and could lead to more layoffs.

European governments have approved trillions of euros (dollars) to help businesses, setting up or bolstering programs to keep workers on payrolls. In the region's largest economy, Germany, some 3.7 million people are still on furlough support programs. With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, the government has extended that through the end of 2021. The program pays over 70% of the salaries for workers put on short hours or no hours. The European Central Bank is injecting 1.35 trillion euro ($1.57 trillion) into the economy.

But while such help has slowed the wave of unemployment, jobs continue to vanish. Companies in the hardest hit industries such as tourism, travel and restaurants expect a long period of weak business and are laying off workers.

In the center of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, laid off restaurant worker Mary Lopes, 21, was not put on a furlough scheme by her employer and is still waiting for unemployment papers. The restaurant she worked in closed down completely in March. When it reopened, only a few of the staff were kept on, under tougher conditions, and the others were left out of work.

“I’ve been working since I was 16,” said Lopes. “I was a good waitress - I know I was a very good waitress. So I don’t understand this situation we are going through.”

Her older colleagues Anabela Santos, 48, and Carlos Silva, 69, say unemployment benefits barely cover expenses. Santos paid five months of overdue bills when she got her unemployment benefit, and sent resumes everywhere. “I haven’t managed to find another job,” she said.