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The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week to 744,000, signaling that many employers still are cutting jobs even as more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, consumers gain confidence and the government distributes aid throughout the economy.
The U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday applications increased by 16,000 from 728,000 a week earlier.
Jobless claims have declined sharply since the virus slammed into the economy in March of last year. But they remain stubbornly high by historical standards — before the pandemic erupted, weekly applications typically remained below 220,000 a week.
For the week ending March 27, more than 3.7 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits, the government said.
If you include supplemental federal programs that were established last year to help the unemployed endure the health crisis, a total of 18.2 million are receiving some form of jobless aid the week of March 20.
Economists monitor weekly jobless claims for early signs of where the job market is headed.
Applications usually are a proxy for layoffs: They typically decline as the economy improves. Or they rise as employers retrench in response to sluggish consumer demand.
During the pandemic, though, the numbers have become a less reliable barometer. States have struggled to clear backlogs of unemployment applications, and suspected fraud has clouded the actual volume of job cuts.
By nearly all measures, though, the economy has been strengthening.
During March, employers added 916,000 jobs, the most since August, and the unemployment rate declined from 6.2 percent to 6 percent.
Still, the United States still has 8.4 million fewer jobs than it had in February 2020, just before the pandemic struck.
Data company Womply reported the percentage of businesses that remained closed last week rose from the beginning of March — from 38 percent to 45 percent for bars; from 35 percent to 46 percent for beauty shops; and from 30 percent to 38 percent for restaurants.