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Data: U.S. Department of Labor; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Nearly 900,000 Americans applied for first-time unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department announced, the highest number since mid-August and the second weekly increase in a row.

What's happening: "It appears there was a widespread reversal of the downtrend in claims that has been in place for several weeks," Jefferies' money market economist Thomas Simons and chief economist Aneta Markowska wrote in a note to clients.

  • "We suspect that the continued inaction in Washington on a new round of stimulus is contributing to the weakness."
  • "Many small businesses need an injection of cash as the service sector continues to struggle due to COVID."

Zoom in: "We feared an above-consensus initial claims number, because claims in Wisconsin — the only state which publishes daily data — rose sharply last week, and Google searches for 'file for unemployment' nudged up, but this is a higher reading than we expected," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a note.

  • "[I]t is a fair bet that this increase in claims is concentrated in states where Covid cases are high and rising rapidly, like Wisconsin."
  • "[T]he increase is consistent with the message from the downward trend in the Homebase small business employment numbers since the start of this month."

By the numbers: The number of Americans receiving benefits from the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program for long-term jobless has risen by more than 10,000% since April 11 and included 2.8 million people as of Sept. 26.

  • The program provides an additional 13 weeks of benefits after Americans have exhausted traditional unemployment.

Of note: "One thing to keep in mind is that we are now hitting the 6-month anniversary of the spike in jobless claims over the Spring that took the data to historic highs," Jeffries' Simons and Markowska said.

  • "For example, claims were 6.615M for the week of April 3. That was 27 weeks ago, and jobless benefits typically pay for 26 weeks."

Watch this space: During the week ending Sept. 26, 818,000 more people enrolled in the PEUC program while 803,000 came off the rolls of continued traditional unemployment.

  • "This suggests that the major reason we've seen continuing claims fall so sharply over the last couple of weeks is due to benefits expiry rather than people finding jobs."

The bottom line: "The state of the labor market is contingent on the virus picture," Shepherdson said.

  • "So we can’t rule out further increases [in jobless claims], and at this point we’d regard a zero print for October payrolls as a decent result; a clear decline is entirely possible."

Go deeper

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Jan 19, 2021 - Economy & Business

Economic growth is slowly returning

Data: New York Fed; Chart: Axios Visuals

The New York Fed's index of real-time data indicators shows the reversal of the economy's progress in late December and early January, but it moved upwards again last week.

Driving the news: Central bankers said the index's rise for the week of Jan. 9 was due to increases in tax withholding, fuel sales and rail traffic, which countered disappointing numbers for initial unemployment insurance claims and a decrease in electricity output.

Private colleges across America can't pay their bills

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Behind the scenes in colleges across the U.S., institutions are having trouble paying their bills.

Why it matters: There’s a reckoning coming in higher education — especially for smaller, private liberal arts schools — that’s been years in the making. In obvious ways, COVID accelerated some of the trends, but college finances have been hurting for a while.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
37 mins ago - Health

Special report: America's biggest hospitals vs. their patients

Expand chart
Data: JHU; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

More than a quarter of the 100 U.S. hospitals with the highest revenue sued patients over unpaid medical bills between 2018 and mid-2020, according to new research by Johns Hopkins University provided exclusively to Axios.

Why it matters: The report suggests that, rather than being an anomaly, patient lawsuits are relatively common across the country and among the largest providers.