709,000 are seeking US jobless aid as the pandemic escalates. Some companies are still adding jobs

In recent days, a resurgence of the coronavirus has triggered tighter restrictions on businesses, mostly restaurants and bars, in a range of states.


Related video above: Some California businesses may have to stop indoor operations again

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week to 709,000, a still-high level but the lowest figure since March and a further sign that the job market might be slowly healing.

As colder weather sets in and fear of the virus escalates, consumers may turn more cautious about traveling, shopping, dining out and visiting gyms, barber shops and retailers. Companies in many sectors could cut jobs or workers' hours. In recent days, a resurgence of the coronavirus has triggered tighter restrictions on businesses, mostly restaurants and bars, in a range of states, including Texas, New York, Maryland, and Oregon.

“The risk may be for more layoffs as coronavirus cases surge and some states impose restrictions on activity,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, an economist at the forecasting firm Oxford Economics.

Last week’s count of new applications for unemployment benefits was down from 757,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday. The still-elevated figure shows that eight months after the pandemic flattened the economy, many employers are still slashing jobs.

The number of people who are continuing to receive traditional unemployment benefits fell to 6.8 million, the government said, from 7.2 million. That suggests that more Americans are finding jobs and no longer receiving unemployment aid. But it also indicates that many jobless people have used up their state unemployment aid — which typically expires after six months — and have transitioned to a federal extended benefits program that lasts 13 more weeks.

The viral outbreak is threatening to upend the improvement in the job market in recent months. The unemployment rate plunged a full percentage point in October to 6.9% while employers added a solid 640,000 new jobs. Yet weekly applications for jobless aid remain at historically high levels. The applications likely include some people who lost jobs weeks ago but who have had to wait for states to process their claims. Some of them might not have filed for benefits until last week even though they were laid off earlier.

At a North Carolina manufacturing plant hit especially hard earlier this year, an uptick in the truck-building business has previously laid-off workers back on the job.

Because of the pandemic, ConMet, which manufactures components for tractor trailer cabs, had to lay off about 100 employees last spring. But because of the improving economy, the Canton company has been able to hire those 100 employees back. And now, it's looking to hire an additional 60.

“I got called back where I left off at,” Yolanda Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn was laid off in March.

“I was panicking to be honest,” she said.

But she’s back on the job now, saying she’s excited and happy.

COVID-19 put the brakes on the truck-building market early on. But ConMet officials said the company is revved back up now.

“It means they have to build more trucks, which means we have to hire more people,” ConMet senior human relations manager Everett Lynch said.

All 100 workers who lost jobs earlier this year are back on the job, and more jobs are available.

“We're looking for a press operator and assembly. We're also looking for more of the technical side with our processing techs and mold setters. And we're also looking for production supervisors,” Lynch said.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said the pandemic's economic impacts don't need to be permanent.

“We're going to find a way not just to get back to where we were, but, hopefully, even add jobs and add more businesses,” Smathers said.

ConMet isn't the only manufacturer with open positions.

General Motors is hiring 3,000 more technical workers by early next year to help with virtual product testing and to develop software as a service.

The automaker says it will offer more remote work opportunities to help develop electric and autonomous vehicles. GM wants to hire electrical system and infotainment software engineers as well as developers for Java, Android, iOS and other platforms.

The company says it wants to increase diversity with the new hires to build on its existing software expertise. Spokesman Stuart Fowle says most of the jobs will be at GM’s Technical Center in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan. Others will be at GM data and technical centers in Phoenix, Austin, Texas; Oshawa, Ontario; and Atlanta.

Ford is also planning to add 350 jobs at two U.S. factories to meet expected demand for electric vehicles that haven’t gone on sale yet.

The automaker said Tuesday it will add 150 workers at its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri, to build the new E-Transit full-size van that will go on sale late next year. Another 200 workers will be hired at Ford’s Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan, which will build an all-electric F-150 pickup starting in mid-2022.

In addition, Ford says it will invest $100 million in the Kansas City plant for an assembly line that will build the electric vans.