Unemployed hospitality and service workers protest in Miami Beach, Fla. in May. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

More than 31 million Americans are collecting unemployment benefits of some form — a slight decline — while roughly 2.3 million filed new applications to receive them last week, a rise from last week's number, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Why it matters: Enhanced unemployment benefits — an extra $600 per week — authorized under the coronavirus stimulus bill are set to expire in coming days, leaving millions of Americans with a smaller financial cushion as cases spike and businesses are forced to close again amid the worst economic downturn of our lifetime.

By the numbers: There were 1.4 million Americans who applied for traditional unemployment benefits — the first time the figure has risen from the prior week after consistently declining for 15 straight weeks.

  • Another 975,000 were first-time applicants to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which was established to provide unemployment benefits to gig workers and the self-employed.
  • Worth noting: Not accounting for seasonal factors, which can dwarf data as the economy faces an unprecedented time, the traditional unemployment applicants did fall from the prior week.

Between the lines: All in all, 31.8 million people are on the rolls of unemployment.

  • The Labor Department said 16.2 million people are receiving traditional benefits — a decline of 1.1 million from the prior week, but still more than double the pre-pandemic record set in June 2009.
  • Plus, over 15 million are receiving benefits through other unemployment programs, including PUA.

The state of play: The number of jobless Americans continuing to receive traditional unemployment has steadily dropped from its peak at 25 million in early May, but remains devastatingly high.

  • Consistent drops in this figure are an indication that a strong enough wave of Americans are falling off the unemployment rolls — and possibly returning to work.

The bottom line: The expanded benefits are a big reason that incomes have been buoyed amid the worst bout of unemployment in U.S. history — as are the one-time stimulus checks.

  • Economists warn of a one-two punch looming if enhanced benefits evaporate: Millions of Americans will be left with a smaller cash cushion, plus worse job prospects as a pummeled economy may already be backsliding.

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