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U.S. jobless claims hit a pandemic low as hiring strengthens

Aug. 19, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 19, 2021 at 7:05 p.m.

A Now Hiring sign hangs at a business in Richmond, Va., on June 2021. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose for the first time in five weeks.  (Associated Press)
A Now Hiring sign hangs at a business in Richmond, Va., on June 2021. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose for the first time in five weeks. (Associated Press)
From staff and wire reports

From staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON – The number of U.S. residents seeking unemployment benefits fell last week for a fourth straight time to a pandemic low, but Spokane County and Washington state both saw small increases.

The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday that jobless claims fell by 29,000 to 348,000. The four-week average of claims, which smooths out week-to-week volatility, also fell – by 19,000, to just below 378,000, also a pandemic low.

In Spokane County, however, new jobless claims increased last week, but continue to remain below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Washington state Employment Security Department.

Laid-off workers in the county filed 370 new claims during the week ending Aug. 14, compared with 339 claims filed the week before, the department reported Thursday.

New unemployment claims in the Washington state rose to 5,528 in the week ending Aug. 14, a 2% increase in applications compared with 5,420 from the week before, according to the ESD.

Nationally, the dwindling number of first-time jobless claims has coincided with the widespread administering of vaccines, which has led businesses to reopen or expand their hours and drawn consumers back to shops, restaurants, airports and entertainment venues.

Still, the number of applications remains high by historic standards: Before the pandemic tore through the economy in March 2020, the weekly pace amounted to around 220,000 a week.

And now there is growing concern that the highly contagious delta variant could disrupt the economy’s recovery from last year’s brief but intense recession.

Some economists have already begun to mark down their estimates for growth this quarter as some measures of economic activity, like air travel, have started to weaken.

Filings for unemployment benefits have traditionally been seen as a real-time measure of the job market’s health. But their reliability has deteriorated during the pandemic.

In many states, the weekly figures have been inflated by fraud and by multiple filings from unemployed Americans as they navigate bureaucratic hurdles to try to obtain benefits.

Those complications help explain why the pace of applications remains comparatively high.

By all accounts, the job market has been rebounding with vigor since the pandemic paralyzed economic activity last year and employers slashed more than 22 million jobs.

The United States has since recovered 16.7 million jobs. And employers have added a rising number of jobs for three straight months, including a robust 943,000 in July.

In the meantime, employers have posted a record 10.1 million openings, and many complain that they can’t find enough applicants to fill their open positions.

Last week’s drop in applications for aid was larger than many economists had expected, a sign that the job market’s recovery remains on track for now despite the worries surrounding the spread of the delta variant.

“As life normalizes and the service sector continues to gain momentum (delta variant permitting), we expect initial jobless claims to remain in a downtrend,” Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at the consulting firm Maria Fiorini Ramirez, said in a research note.

Shapiro added that “this report points to a continued rapid pace of job gains since the July employment data were collected.’’

Some employers ascribe their labor shortages to supplemental unemployment benefits from the federal government – including $300 a week on top of regular state aid – for discouraging some of the jobless from seeking work.

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