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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. 

Updated 1 hour ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

2 hours ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.