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The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose by 61,000 this past week to 719,000, signaling that many employers still are cutting jobs even as more businesses reopen, vaccines are increasingly administered and federal aid spreads through the economy.
The U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday the number of claims increased from 658,000 the week before.
Though the pace of applications has dropped sharply since early this year, they remain high by historical standards. Before the pandemic flattened the economy a year ago, jobless claims typically ran below 220,000 a week.
Still, the four-week average of claims, which smooths out week-to-week gyrations, fell by 10,500 to 719,000. That's the fewest since mid-March 2020, just before the pandemic began to cause widespread layoffs.
All told, 3.8 million people were collecting traditional state benefits during the week ending March 20. If you include federal programs that are meant to help the unemployed through the health crisis, 18.2 million people were receiving some type of jobless aid in the week that ended March 13.
That's down from 19.7 million in the previous week.
Applications generally reflect the rate of layoffs, which normally fall steadily as a job market strengthens. During the pandemic, though, the numbers have become less reliable as states have struggled with application backlogs and allegations of fraud have clouded the actual volume of job cuts.
Last month, consumer confidence reached a post-pandemic peak. And the $1,400 checks in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion economic relief plan have sharply lifted consumer spending, according to Bank of America's tracking of its debit and credit cards.
Spending jumped 23 percent in the third week of March compared with pre-pandemic levels, the BoA said.
And even with the pace of layoffs still relatively high, hiring has begun to accelerate. In February, employers added a robust 379,000 jobs across the country.
Last month, they are believed to have added even more. According to the data firm FactSet, economists expect the March jobs report being released today to show that the economy added a sizable 614,000 jobs and that the unemployment rate fell from 6.2 percent to 6 percent. Less than a year ago, the jobless rate had hit 14.8 percent.
Still, the economic impact of the pandemic lingers. The data firm Womply reports that 63 percent of movie theaters and other entertainment venues were closed last week, as were 39 percent of bars and 39 percent of hair salons and other beauty shops.