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Data: U.S. Department of Labor, FRED; Chart: Axios Visuals

New applications for unemployment benefits last week hit a three-month high — the latest sign that the labor market recovery is stalling.

Yes, but: Besides confirming the likely direction the job market is moving in, it’s unclear if layoffs are better than the numbers suggest, or even worse.

Why it matters: Economists have said for months the timeliest government data about the labor market is shoddy at best.

What’s going on: The claims upswing “likely overstates the trend, in the pace of firings, due to the catching up of processing claims following the Thanksgiving holiday,” Joe Brusuelas, chief economist as RSM US, wrote in a note.

What we don't know: How recent reports of growing backlogs in places like California are swaying the weekly figures.

  • How many people are falling through the cracks as they exhaust unemployment benefits.
  • Continued claims in regular state programs have been falling as people shift into the program that offers an additional 13 weeks of benefits.
  • When those are exhausted, they can move to the Extended Benefits program — but that’s only offered in 33 states.

Plus: A new disclaimer appears for the first time in Thursday’s report that redefines how we've talked about the continued claims figure for months.

  • It’s meant to be interpreted as the number of weeks of benefits that have been claimed, not the number of people who are collecting unemployment through various programs — to account for instances of double counting.
  • What it means: As of Nov. 21, Americans have collected 19 million weeks worth of benefits across all programs — but that doesn’t necessarily mean 19 million people are collecting these benefits.

Go deeper

The jobs report silver linings that are a mirage

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The labor market recovery came to a screeching halt in December, and the few data points that look promising for some of the most vulnerable working Americans are actually deeply troubling upon further inspection.

Driving the news: The recovery was interrupted as the coronavirus raged and the government was slow to move on fiscal support. 

Ina Fried, author of Login
1 hour ago - Technology

Scoop: Google is investigating the actions of another top AI ethicist

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo by Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Google is investigating recent actions by Margaret Mitchell, who helps lead the company's ethical AI team, Axios has confirmed.

Why it matters: The probe follows the forced exit of Timnit Gebru, a prominent researcher also on the AI ethics team at Google whose ouster ignited a firestorm among Google employees.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Joe Biden's COVID-19 bubble

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The incoming administration is planning extraordinary steps to protect its most prized commodity, Joe Biden, including requiring daily employee COVID tests and N95 masks at all times, according to new guidance sent to some incoming employees Tuesday.

Why it matters: The president-elect is 78 years old and therefore a high risk for the virus and its worst effects, despite having received the vaccine. While President Trump's team was nonchalant about COVID protocols — leading to several super-spreader episodes — the new rules will apply to all White House aides in "high proximity to principals."