New York CNN Business  — 

America’s jobs recovery is slowing down. While many have been able to return to work, millions remain unemployed.

Another 709,000 Americans filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits last week on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Labor Department reported Thursday. It was a slightly smaller number of initial claims than economists had expected.

On top of that, another 298,154 workers filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program sanctioned under the CARES Act to provide benefits to those ineligible for regular state aid, such as the self-employed.

Together, first-time claims stood at 1 million last week, not adjusted for seasonal fluctuations. That was a new low for the total number.

Still, it’s been eight months since the pandemic crisis started, and the economic hardship created by mass layoffs remains for millions.

“It is good that initial claims have dipped slightly, but this is still not enough progress,” said Indeed Hiring Lab economist AnnElizabeth Konkel in emailed comments. “Magnitude matters, and total initial claims are still five times higher than the pre-Covid era.”

Continued jobless claims, which count people who have filed for benefits for at least two weeks in a row, stood at 6.8 million – also slightly less than expected and down from the previous week.

But the falling number of continued claims is a red flag for economists, because it might be going down for the wrong reason. States only provide jobless benefits for a limited period of time, commonly 26 weeks. After that, people roll into other programs, such as the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, specifically designed for the coronavirus crisis.

And indeed, the number of people receiving aid through PEUC grew to 4.1 million in the week ended October 24, from just below 4 million in the prior week. This is raising concerns about long-term joblessness.

People who don’t work for a long period of time become less likely to return to the labor force at all. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has been warning of this detachment all year.

Worse still, these pandemic-era programs are set to expire at year-end unless Congress takes action to extend them.

“This would leave millions scrambling to adapt,” Konkel said, “either facing a halt in unemployment benefits or the challenge of enrolling in a different benefits program amid an already clogged system. With continued tumult in Washington, the possibility of these programs ending looms large.”

In total more than 21 million Americans are receiving jobless benefits through some government program.