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US weekly jobless claims dip below 400,000 in new pandemic low

An ice cream shop advertises for help on May 15 in Bar Harbor, Maine.
An ice cream shop advertises for help on May 15 in Bar Harbor, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week for a fifth straight week to a new pandemic low, the latest evidence that the U.S. job market is regaining its health as the economy further reopens.

The Labor Department said Thursday that jobless claims dropped to 385,000, down 20,000 from the week before. The number of weekly applications for unemployment aid, which generally reflects the pace of layoffs, has fallen steadily all year, though it remains high by historical standards.

The decline in applications reflects a swift rebound in economic growth and the job market’s steady recovery from the coronavirus recession. More Americans are venturing out to shop, travel, dine out and congregate at entertainment venues. All that renewed spending has led companies to seek new workers.

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Once again, state officials in Massachusetts said that due to a “system processing error,” initial claims data for regular unemployment benefits for last week and the week prior are “estimated values” based on data reported to the Employment and Training Administration. The state said the corrected values will be provided when they are available.

Based on that data, about 8,100 individuals filed new claims for unemployment benefits in Massachusetts last week, down about 280 from the week prior. Another 880 individuals filed for aid under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides assistance to those not eligible for traditional benefits, such as gig workers, down about 180. An additional 8,250 individuals filed claims under extended benefits programs, which provide aid to those who have exhausted traditional aid but are still out of work, up about 1,500 from the week prior.

Employers have added 1.8 million jobs this year — an average of more than 450,000 a month — and the government’s May jobs report on Friday is expected to show that they added an additional 656,000 last month, according to a survey of economists by the data firm FactSet. The economy remains down 8.2 million jobs from its level in February 2020, just before the virus tore through the economy.

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Yet U.S. employers are posting a record number of available jobs. And many of them have complained that they can’t find enough workers to meet rising customer demand.

Job growth slowed sharply in April compared compared with March, a pullback that was widely attributed to a labor shortage in some industries, especially at restaurants and other employers in the hospitality sector.

At least 25 states have responded by announcing plans to cut off some emergency federal aid to the unemployed — including a $300-a-week federal benefit — as early as next week. Critics argue that the extra federal unemployment aid, on top of regular state jobless benefits, discourages some of the jobless from seeking work.

Weekly applications for unemployment aid, which topped 900,000 in early January, have fallen steadily all year, though they remain high by historical standards: Before COVID-19 all but paralyzed the economy in March 2020, claims were regularly coming in below 230,000 a week.

In the week that ended May 15, a total of 15.4 million people were receiving some form of jobless aid, including special federal programs to aid the unemployed during the pandemic. That was down from 15.8 million the previous week. That figure has steadily declined from about 20 million in December.