The number of Americans applying for unemployment aid fell last week to 547,000, the lowest point since the pandemic struck and an encouraging sign that layoffs are slowing on the strength of an improving job market.
The Labor Department said Thursday that applications declined 39,000 from a revised 586,000 a week earlier. Weekly jobless claims are down sharply from a peak of 900,000 in early January.
At the same time, they’re still far above the roughly 230,000 level that prevailed before the viral outbreak ripped through the economy in March of last year.
“With 135 million Americans having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and the economy opening up more each day, the number of job opportunities will continue to rise,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING, a European bank.
About 17.4 million people were continuing to collect unemployment benefits in the week that ended April 3, up from 16.9 million in the previous week.
Most of the increase occurred in two states, California and Texas, which process their claims every other week. In California, recipients of a federal program for the long-term unemployed jumped nearly 50%, a sign that the state likely processed a backlog of claims that had been filed earlier.
Virginia saw a surge in the number of initial jobless claims, jumping 8,717 claimants or 173% from the previous week.
The state had 13,751 people who applied for unemployment benefits for the first time last week, the Virginia Employment Commission reported Thursday. One reason for the dramatic week-over-week increase could be because the state saw a big decline in applications for the week of April 10 as the commission temporarily suspended its online application system for new unemployment benefit claims on April 6 while it investigated fraud cases.
Still, jobless claims were 83% lower last week than compared to the same week in 2020 as pandemic employment impacts neared their peak.
The Richmond region — Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico — saw claims rising 179% for the week ending April 17 compared with the previous week. The region had 1,354 claims, up 869 from the previous week.
The overall U.S. job market has been making steady gains. Last month, the nation’s employers added 916,000 jobs, the most since August, in a sign that a sustained recovery is taking hold. The unemployment rate fell from 6.2% to 6%, well below the pandemic peak of nearly 15%.
The number of available jobs has also jumped in recent weeks, leading many employers to complain that they can’t find enough workers despite still-high unemployment. Several factors may be keeping some of those out of work from searching for jobs. They include fears of contracting the virus, child care needs and the fact that a federal supplemental unemployment benefit of $300 a week, on top of state aid, means that some low-income workers can receive as much or more income from jobless benefits compared with their former job’s pay.
States have struggled to clear backlogs of unemployment applications, and suspected fraud has clouded the actual volume of job cuts. In addition, the supplemental federal jobless payment, on top of regular state unemployment aid, might have encouraged more people to apply for benefits.
Business Editor Gregory J. Gilligan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.