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Jobless Claims Unexpectedly Rise — But COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout and Progress in Stimulus Talks Signal Optimism

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose for the second week in a row. A surge in COVID-19 cases has prompted renewed restrictions that have started to stifle business activity once again.

According to the Department of Labor, seasonally adjusted initial claims for the week ended Dec. 12 totaled 885,000 — an increase of 23,000 from the previous week’s 808,000 new applications. Up until last week, the country had seen seven straight weeks of filings below 800,000.

The report reflected the struggle of the U.S. workforce as the number of coronavirus infections continues to threaten their livelihoods. On Wednesday, the country reported record numbers for COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths — just ahead of a key meeting to discuss Moderna’s vaccine, which is expected to receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. (Following approval, millions of doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine began to ship out around the country last week.)

Over the course of the pandemic, the country has seen more than 16.98 million cases, and at least 307,500 people have died. Health authorities have predicted that these numbers will continue to climb. The holiday season and the cooler months have already led to more crowds and indoor gatherings that can accelerate the spread of the coronavirus. The rise in infections has already forced some cities to impose new lockdowns and restrictions that have temporarily shuttered businesses such as restaurants, gyms and stores — and subsequently pushed more people out of work.

Yesterday, the Department of Commerce reported that retail sales dipped 1.1% to $546.5 billion for November — despite two of the year’s biggest shopping holidays, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, falling on that month. (Retail spending, however, was up 7.1% from the prior year — partly thanks to record-setting e-commerce on those shopping holidays.) It marked the first time in seven months that retail sales took a dip amid expiring federal aid.

As such, the country is closely watching negotiations surrounding another stimulus bill to help prop up the economy. Congressional leaders appear to be close to cementing a bipartisan bill worth $908 billion, which would include $288 billion for small businesses, an additional $180 billion in unemployment insurance and $16 billion toward the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

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