By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits dropped to a four-month low last week as an improving public health environment allows more segments of the economy to reopen, putting the labor market recovery back on track.
Still, a full recovery from the deep scars inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic will probably take years, with the weekly unemployment claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday also showing a whopping 20.1 million Americans collecting unemployment checks in late February.
“The economy and the labor market are entering the next phase of the rebound, supported by a ramping up of vaccinations and declining infections that will allow for a resumption of activity,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits decreased 42,000 to a seasonally adjusted 712,000 for the week ended March 6, the lowest level since early November. Data for the prior week was revised to show 9,000 more applications received than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 725,000 applications in the latest week.
Unadjusted claims dropped 47,170 to 709,458 last week, amid declines in Texas, New York and Mississippi, where claims had been boosted in the prior period by harsh weather. Claims rose in Ohio, which has been plagued by fraudulent applications.
Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state programs, 1.2 million people filed claims last week.
U.S. stocks opened higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mixed.
New coronavirus infections have dropped for eight straight weeks, declining 12% last week, according to a Reuters analysis of state, county and CDC data. Vaccinations jumped to a record 2.2 million shots per day and virus-related deaths fell 18%.
That, together with nearly $900 billion in additional pandemic relief money advanced by the government in late December, fired up consumer spending and hiring in February after declining in December.
Domestic demand is expected to surge in the months ahead, after Congress approved President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery package, which will send fresh aid to small businesses as well as one-time $1,400 checks to mostly lower- and middle-income households. It will also extend a government-funded $300 weekly unemployment supplement through Sept. 6.
Jobless claims have been slow to decline with the improvement in economic activity and public health because of issues ranging from fraudulent filings and backlogs to recent winter storms in the South.
Though claims have dropped from a record 6.867 million in March 2020 when the pandemic hit the United States just more than a year ago, they are above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession and could remain elevated because of the expanded unemployment benefits. In a well-functioning labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.
“There is some risk in our view though that expanded unemployment, with benefits of an additional $300 per week, could keep the level of claims for unemployment benefits more elevated this year, as some workers could earn more on unemployment than in their previous jobs,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, an economist at Citigroup in New York.
Regular state unemployment benefits averaged about $346 per week in January. Together with the weekly $300 subsidy, they add up to $646 per week or over $15 per hour for a 40-hour week.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, though some states have higher rates.
The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid declined 193,000 to 4.144 million during the week ended Feb 27. The decrease largely reflected people exhausting their eligibility for benefits, limited to 26 weeks in most states.
About 5.455 million people were on the government-funded extended benefits program during the week ended Feb. 20, up 986,351 from the prior week. There number of people on unemployment benefits under all programs during that period increased by 2.087 million.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao and Andrea Ricci)