The numbers: The number of people who applied for jobless benefits in late January fell to the lowest level in three weeks, but layoffs were still high early in the new year as the economy wrestled with a winter surge in the coronavirus pandemic.
Initial jobless claims filed traditionally through the states fell by 67,000 to a seasonally adjusted 847,000 in the seven days ended Jan. 23, the government said Thursday.
Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast initial jobless claims to total 875,000.
The sharp decline likely stemmed in part from the Martin Luther King. Jr. holiday. Some people who lose their jobs wait until the week after a holiday to file claims.
Another 426,856 applications were filed through a temporary federal-relief program.
Adding up new state and federal claims, the government received 1.3 million applications last week, based on actual or unadjusted figures. Combined claims have yet to drop below 1 million a week since last May.
Before the pandemic, new claims were running in the low 200,000s and they had never risen by more than 695,000 in any one week.
What happened: New applications for jobless benefits fell the most last week in California, Texas, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. They rose the most in Florida and Illinois.
The number of people already collecting state jobless benefits, meanwhile, declined by 203,000 to a seasonally adjusted 4.77 million. That’s the lowest level since the pandemic began.
Yet an additional 3.9 million who have exhausted state compensation have shifted to an emergency program funded by the federal government.
Altogether, the number of people receiving benefits from eight separate state and federal programs was reported at an unadjusted 18.3 million as of Jan. 9. The number has been falling gradually for months.
While jobless claims have correctly reflected the rise and fall in unemployment during the pandemic, a government watchdog agency also found the number of distinct individuals applying for or collecting benefits has been inflated by fraud, double counting and other problems.
Given those problems, economists say to pay attention to the direction of claims instead of the totals.
The big picture: Unemployment is no longer falling quickly owing to the winter surge in coronavirus cases. In some parts of the economy layoffs have actually risen due to more restrictions on business.
Hiring is likely to accelerate if the vaccine rollout accelerates and the pandemic begins to fade, but it will take time. Some companies such as manufacturers also complain they can’t find enough skilled job applicants even in the middle of a pandemic.
What they are saying? “Filings fell more than expected last week. Even so, layoffs are ongoing at an elevated pace,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist. “Conditions will remain weak and recovery will be slow
until infections can be curbed and the economy can reopen more completely.”