Unemployment rises for fifth straight month in Europe amid pandemic

A student of the Pantheon university wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus works on her computer at the entrance hall in Paris, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. AP Photo/Michel Euler

Unemployment rose for a fifth straight month in Europe in August and is expected to grow further amid concern that extensive government support programs won’t be able to keep many businesses hit by coronavirus restrictions afloat forever.

The jobless rate increased to 8.1 per cent in the 19 countries that use the euro currency, from eight per cent in July, official statistics showed Thursday. The number of people out of work rose by 251,000 during the month to 13.2 million.

While Europe’s unemployment rate is still modest compared with the spike seen in many other countries, economists predict it could hit double digits in coming months as wage support programs expire. A resurgence in infections in many countries has meanwhile led to new restrictions on businesses and public life that may have to be broadened and could lead to more layoffs.

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European governments have approved trillions of euros (dollars) to help businesses, setting up or bolstering programs to keep workers on payrolls. In the region’s largest economy, Germany, some 3.7 million people are still on furlough support programs. With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, the government has extended that through the end of 2021. The program pays over 70 per cent of the salaries for workers put on short hours or no hours. The European Central Bank is injecting 1.35 trillion euro ($1.57 trillion) into the economy.

But while such help has slowed the wave of unemployment, jobs continue to vanish. Companies in the hardest-hit industries such as tourism, travel and restaurants expect a long period of weak business and are laying off workers.

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In the center of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, laid off restaurant worker Mary Lopes, 21, was not put on a furlough scheme by her employer and is still waiting for unemployment papers. The restaurant she worked in closed down completely in March. When it reopened, only a few of the staff were kept on, under tougher conditions, and the others were left out of work.

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“I’ve been working since I was 16,” said Lopes. “I was a good waitress – I know I was a very good waitress. So I don’t understand this situation we are going through.”

Her older colleagues Anabela Santos, 48, and Carlos Silva, 69, say unemployment benefits barely cover expenses. Santos paid five months of overdue bills when she got her unemployment benefit, and sent resumes everywhere. “I haven’t managed to find another job,” she said.

“It’s an overdose of stress because we haven’t a penny in our pockets,” says Silva. “We are left without any money after paying rent, water, energy and then we are suffering for those thirty days until the next 28th of the month or so.”

The pandemic is sending unemployment higher around the globe. Outside the 27-country European Union and its 19 members that use the euro, Britain faces a sharp increase in unemployment as the government plans to replace a broad furlough support program at the end of October with a more limited version. Some economists expect the unemployment rate to double to eight per cent by year-end. A lack of progress on reaching a new trade deal with the EU is only likely to worsen things.

In the U.S., the jobless rate fell sharply in August by 1.8 per cent to 8.4 per cent, after a sharper increase during the spring. The U.S., which has less in the way of labour market support programs, saw unemployment spike as high as 14.7 per cent in May, followed by a steep fall as businesses and states reopened. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits declined last week to a still-high 837,000, indicating companies are still cutting jobs despite the tentative recovery that began after states started reopening.

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U.S. airlines began furloughing more than 32,000 employees on Thursday after a federal prohibition on job cuts expired.

The recession has in some cases accelerated painful change that existed before the pandemic, such as technological shifts in the auto industry. Automakers Daimler and Renault, airline Lufthansa, oil company Royal Dutch Shell and travel concern TUI have announced sweeping cost-cutting and job reductions.

Among the hardest hit are workers and small business owners in the services industries, many of whom are struggling for survival, and independent contractors and temporary workers.

Greek actor and theater director Aris Laskos hasn’t worked since early February. He received a one-off support check for 800 euros ($940) shortly after the country’s economy was placed in lockdown in the spring.

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Greece recently emerged from a crippling financial crisis after spending most of the past decade in recession. Unemployment numbers are again rising fast, reaching 16.7 per cent in the second quarter, with the numbers expected to worsen after government funding for furlough schemes runs out.

“Probably 90 per cent of employees in the arts sector are unemployed,” said Laskos, who heads an actors’ guild representing more than 2,500 professionals. Most members do not qualify for benefits due to the freelance nature of acting work.

“The arts sector is was the first to be locked down and is the last one still not opened yet,” Laskos said. “We are struggling, trying to cope with our lives. We have no insurance, and we cannot enter the unemployment system… Everything else is running: planes, ferries, restaurants, but not us.”

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