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US unemployment claims fall to a pandemic low of 498,000

AP PHOTO A signs announcing they are hiring hangs in the window of a restaurant in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan in New York, Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell last week to 498,000, the lowest point since the viral pandemic struck 14 months ago and a sign of the job market’s growing strength as businesses reopen and consumers step up spending.

Thursday’s report from the Labor Department showed that applications declined 92,000 from a revised 590,000 a week earlier. The number of weekly jobless claims — a rough measure of the pace of layoffs — has declined significantly from a peak of 900,000 in January as employers have ramped up hiring.

At the same time, the pace of applications is still well above the roughly 230,000 level that prevailed before the viral outbreak tore through the economy in March of last year.

As vaccinations have been more widely administered, restrictions on businesses have gradually lifted and consumers have become more willing to travel, shop and dine out, stronger spending has boosted hiring, slowed layoffs and accelerated growth. The economy grew last quarter at a vigorous 6.4 percent annual rate, with expectations that the current quarter will be even better.

The rapid turnaround has led many businesses, especially restaurants and others in the hospitality industry, to complain that they can’t find enough workers to fill open jobs. Some other employers are raising pay to attract applicants.

Pointing to the $300-a-week federal jobless check that was included in a $1.9 trillion rescue package enacted in March, some employers have complained that some unemployed people can receive more money from jobless aid than from a job.

The complaints have led Gov. Greg Gianforte to announce that Montana would stop issuing the federal unemployment payments at the end of June. Instead, the state will use some of the federal money to pay $1,200 bonuses to unemployed workers who take jobs. Montana’s unemployment rate has fallen to 3.8 percent. About 30,000 people are receiving jobless aid in Montana.

Other states are ending a pandemic-era exemption to long-standing rules that required aid recipients to show that they were looking for jobs in order to keep receiving unemployment. That requirement was suspended during the pandemic but has recently been reinstated in Florida and New Hampshire.

Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, disputed the notion that unemployment benefits are dissuading many people from taking jobs. He noted that jobless claims are declining faster in states where hiring is strong, indicating that many of the new hires had previously been receiving unemployment aid.

“It will take many months of economic recovery, vaccine progress and rebuilding of the child care infrastructure before (many unemployed) are able to find suitable work,” Stettner said.

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