A year after they first rocketed upward, jobless claims may finally be returning to earth.
More than 714,000 people filed for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was up slightly from the week before, but still among the lowest weekly totals since the pandemic began.
In addition, 237,000 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers people who don’t qualify for state benefits programs. That number, too, has been falling.
Jobless claims remain high by historical standards, and are far above the norm before the pandemic, when around 200,000 people a week were filing for benefits. Applications have improved only gradually — even after the recent declines, the weekly figure is modestly below where it was last fall. Some 18 million people in total are receiving jobless assistance, many of them through programs that extend benefits beyond the 26 weeks that are offered in most states.
But economists are optimistic that further improvement is ahead as the vaccine rollout accelerates and more states lift restrictions on business activity. Fewer companies are laying off workers, and hiring has picked up, meaning that people who lose their jobs are more likely to find new ones quickly.
“We could actually finally see the jobless claims numbers come down because there’s enough job creation to offset the layoffs,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job site ZipRecruiter.
There are other signs that the economic recovery is gaining momentum. The Institute for Supply Management said Thursday that its manufacturing index, a closely watched measure of the industrial economy, hit its highest level since 1983 in March. The report’s employment index also rose strongly, a sign that manufacturers are likely to step up hiring to meet rising demand.
Economists will get a more complete, albeit less timely, picture of the job market on Friday, when the Labor Department releases data on hiring and unemployment in March. Forecasters surveyed by FactSet expect the report to show that U.S. employers added more than 600,000 jobs last month, the most since October.
Even better numbers probably lie ahead. The March data was collected early in the month, before most states broadened vaccine access and before most Americans began receiving $1,400 checks from the federal government as part of the newly passed relief package. Those forces should lead to even faster job growth in April, said Jay Bryson, chief economist for Wells Fargo.
“If you don’t get a barnburner in March, I think you’re probably going to get one in April,” he said.
The biggest risk to the economy is as it has been for the last year: the coronavirus itself. Virus cases are rising again in much of the country as states have begun easing restrictions. If that upward trend turns into a full-blown new wave of infections, it could force some states to reverse course, which could act as a brake on the recovery, Mr. Bryson warned.
But few economists expect a repeat of last winter, when a jump in Covid-19 cases pushed the recovery into reverse. More than a quarter of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and more than two million people a day are being inoculated. That should allow economic activity to continue to rebound.
Still, Ms. Pollak cautioned that the job market would not return to normal overnight. Even as many companies resume normal operations, others are discovering that the pandemic has permanently disrupted their business model.
“There are still a lot of business closures and a lot of layoffs that have yet to happen,” she said. “The repercussions of this pandemic are still rippling through this economy.”