WASHINGTON – The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell sharply last week in a sign that layoffs may have eased, though applications for aid remain at a historically high level.
Jobless claims declined by 111,000 from the previous week, to a seasonally adjusted 730,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. It is the lowest figure since late November and the sharpest one-week decline since August. Before the virus erupted in the United States last March, weekly applications for unemployment benefits had never topped 700,000.
The latest figures coincide with a weakened job market that has made scant progress in the last three months. Hiring averaged just 29,000 a month from November through January. Though the unemployment rate was 6.3% in January, a broader measure that includes people who have given up on their job searches is closer to 10%.
All told, 19 million people were receiving unemployment aid as of Feb. 6, up from 18.3 million the previous week. About three-quarters of those recipients are receiving checks from federal benefit programs, including programs that provide jobless aid beyond the 26 weeks given by most states.
Last week's drop in applications was concentrated in California and Ohio, where they fell by a combined 96,000. Ohio officials had said this month that a surge in new applications was driven in part by a jump in potentially fraudulent claims. That appears to have faded. California's system operates on a biweekly basis, which can make its data choppy.
This month's devastating winter storms and power outages in Texas and some neighboring states might have also disrupted the filing or processing of some claims. Applications for jobless aid fell by one-sixth in Texas, to about 35,000.
Yet last week's decline in applications was broad-based, with 36 states and the District of Columbia reporting fewer people seeking unemployment benefits. That suggests that employers might be cutting fewer jobs.
Despite the weakened job market, key sectors of the economy are showing signs of picking up as vaccinations increase and government rescue aid works its way through the economy. The Federal Reserve's ultra-low-rate policy is providing important support as well.