Weekly jobless claims fall to lowest level since lockdowns

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Weekly jobless claims plunged by 200,000 applications to the lowest level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago, the Labor Department reported Thursday

In the week ending April 10, roughly 576,000 Americans filed initial claims for unemployment benefits, plummeting from a revised total of 769,000 in the previous week. 

Last week’s total was the lowest since the week ending March 14, 2020, when Americans filed 256,000 initial claims for jobless benefits as entire swaths of the economy began to shut down.

While weekly jobless claims data can be thrown off by fraud and backlogs — two significant issues during the pandemic — last week’s sharp decline is another encouraging sign of the U.S. economy beginning to rapidly recover.

Weekly claims skyrocketed to a peak of 3.3 million during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out 22 million jobs and forced thousands of businesses to shutter. The economy has since recovered more than 13 million of the jobs lost to the pandemic, though millions remain unable to find work or start looking for it due to pandemic-related setbacks or responsibilities.

Last week’s decline brings jobless claims considerably closer to their pre-pandemic average of roughly 200,000 per week and further from the devastating heights seen at the start of the pandemic.

Applications for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) — a program for contractors, gig workers and others who don’t qualify for traditional jobless benefits — also fell last week to 131,975, down nearly 20,000 from 152,419 the prior week. 

“We may still see volatility in the weeks ahead. However, we expect the trend in claims to be downward as the economic recovery gains momentum,” wrote Nancy Vanden Houten and Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics, who projected the U.S. to add another 6 million jobs before the end of 2021.

The new claims data also challenges fears that enhanced jobless benefits extended by President Biden in March are keeping workers on unemployment rolls instead of going back to work, where they may make less money in some states.

The restaurant, bar and retail industries have had serious trouble hiring workers to serve a growing number of customers now comfortable to resume some activities that were limited during the pandemic.

While many business owners and some analysts blamed higher unemployment benefits for the labor shortage, others say the new data suggests that health concerns and partial school closures are the main culprits.

“Employers are having unusual difficulty filling vacancies. But it is premature to blame unemployment benefits or to expect that the difficulty will persist,” tweeted Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

“The *main* reasons people aren’t working are Covid risk & school closures—and both barriers only recently started falling.”

Updated at 9:17 a.m.

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