While vaccination efforts have gathered speed and restrictions on activities have receded in many states, the job market is showing signs of life.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell last week to 657,000, a decrease of 100,000 from the previous week, the Labor Department reported Thursday. It was the lowest weekly level of initial state claims since the pandemic upended the economy a year ago.
On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 684,000.
In addition, there were 242,000 new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits, a decrease of 43,000.
Unemployment claims have been at historically high levels for the past year, partly because some workers have been laid off more than once. Much of the drop last week was accounted for by a decline in new claims in Ohio and Illinois, but economists said the overall trend was encouraging.
“This is definitely a positive signal and a move in the right direction,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics. “We would expect to see further improvements as vaccines roll out and restrictions are lifted.”
Between the state and federal programs, the total number of new jobless claims was just under 900,000 after being stuck above one million a week.
Although the pace of vaccinations, as well as passage of a $1.9 trillion relief package this month, has lifted economists’ expectations for growth, the labor market has lagged behind other measures of recovery.
Still, the easing of restrictions on indoor dining areas, health clubs, movie theaters and other gathering places offers hope for the millions of workers who were let go in the last 12 months. And the $1,400 checks going to most Americans as part of the relief bill should help spending perk up in the weeks ahead.
Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said she hoped for consistent employment gains but her optimism was tempered by concern about the longer-term displacement of workers by the pandemic.
“The numbers are encouraging, but no one is jumping the gun and hiring up for what looks to be a boom this spring and summer,” she said. “There is a reluctance to get ahead of activity.”
“We’ve passed the point where you can just flip a switch and the lights come back on,” she added. “We need to see a sustained increase in hiring, which I think we will see, but the concern is that it won’t be so robust. It takes longer to ramp up than it does to shut down.”