Worker applications for unemployment benefits rose during
the first half of February, pausing a downward trend that pointed to an
improving labor market amid other signs that the economic recovery is picking
The Labor Department on Thursday said the increase to
861,000 last week was accompanied by a 55,000 upward revision of claims in the
prior week, on a seasonally adjusted basis. That put the four-week moving
average, which smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, at 833,000, slightly
lower than the prior week and near the top of a roughly 750,000 to 850,000
range since last October.
Jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—have remained above the
pre-coronavirus pandemic peak of 695,000 since the start of the pandemic last
“Things are not as stalled as they were in January, but we
don’t have any momentum,” said Marianne Wanamaker, a labor economist at the
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and former adviser to the Trump White
While the initial reopening of the economy last summer from
pandemic-related closures led to quick labor market gains, Ms. Wanamaker said
she expects job growth over the next few months to be more gradual. “You’re not
going to see rapid declines,” she said.
The economy is showing other signs of stepped-up growth in
the new year. On Wednesday, the government said retail sales, a measure of
purchases at stores, restaurants and online, jumped a seasonally adjusted 5.3%
in January from a month earlier, helped by pandemic-related federal stimulus
payments distributed to households at the start of the year. Manufacturing
output also has neared pre-pandemic levels.
The job market could be aided by government aid—both a $900
billion stimulus package signed into law in December and a new $1.9 trillion
plan under consideration in Congress—and eased business restrictions in some
states. California lifted its stay-at-home order in late January, and cities
such as New York and Washington have allowed restaurants to resume indoor
Ms. Wanamaker said it may take significant improvements in
some struggling sectors of the economy, such as leisure and hospitality, to
mark a turning point for the labor market. That might have to wait until at
least the spring, she said, when temperate weather will make it easier to
gather outdoors and frequent businesses.
Last week’s overall jobless claims number could have been
lower than reported. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services for the
week ended Feb. 13 reported 147,000 claims, of which it suspects at least
33,000 to be fraudulent, according to a release from the department. The state
had previously said a spike in claims at the beginning of February was likely
driven by attempted fraud.
This week’s winter storms in Texas and other parts of the
country could lead to short-term anomalies in jobless claims figures in the
coming weeks, said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at jobs site Indeed. Such
blips are usually ironed out in later data revisions.
The total number of workers collecting unemployment benefits
through regular state programs was about 4.5 million in the week ended Feb 6.
So-called continuing claims are well below pandemic highs but still more than
double the levels seen a year ago.
“When you step back and look at the pattern, it’s evident
that there is still so much economic pain because of the coronavirus,” Ms.
While some job seekers are finding work, others have had trouble
finding a job.
Omar Soorma said he was furloughed from his job last spring
as a medical technologist at a hospital near Columbus, Ohio, and hasn’t been
called back to work.
Mr. Soorma, 73 years old, said he would have kept working
had he not been let go. He applied to four other hospitals in the area, without
any luck so far, and isn’t willing to relocate for work, given his age. Now, he
is pondering retirement.
His son, who graduated from medical school last spring, is
encouraging him to embrace the idea, Mr. Soorma said. “He said ‘Dad, don’t work
Mr. Soorma said he had been in the workforce for over four
decades and had never received unemployment aid before filing his first claim
in May. Loss of a job has been “a big loss” for him, he said. “You don’t know
how to find your bearing, find your balance.”
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