WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell for the sixth-straight week as the U.S. economy, held back for months by the coronavirus pandemic, reopens rapidly.
Jobless claims fell by 9,000 to 376,000 from 385,000 the week before, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The number of people signing up for benefits exceeded 900,000 in early January and has fallen more or less steadily ever since. Still, claims are high by historic standards. Before the pandemic brought economic activity to a near-standstill in March 2020, weekly applications were regularly coming in below 220,000.
Nearly 3.5 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits the week of May 29, down by 258,000 from the week before.
Businesses are reopening rapidly as the rollout of vaccines allows Americans to feel more comfortable returning to restaurants, bars and shops. The Labor Department reported Tuesday that job openings hit a record 9.3 million in April. Layoffs dropped to 1.4 million, the lowest in records dating back to 2000; 4 million quit their jobs in April, another record and a sign that they are confident enough in their prospects to try something new.
"As life normalizes and the service sector continues to gain momentum, we expect initial jobless claims to continue to trend lower,″ said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at the economic and financial consulting firm Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc.
In May, the U.S. economy generated 559,000 million new jobs, and the unemployment rate dropped to 5.8% from 6.1% in April. Many economists expected to see even faster job growth. The United States is still short 7.6 million jobs from where it stood in February 2020.
But employers are posting vacancies faster than would-be applicants can fill them. Many Americans are contending with health and child care issues related to covid-19 and with career uncertainty after the coronavirus recession wiped out many jobs for good. Some are taking their time looking for work because expanded federal jobless benefits pay more than their old jobs.
Many states are scheduled to begin dropping the federal benefits this month. The benefits will expire June 26 in Arkansas.
Enhanced benefits are set to expire Saturday in Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri. Those states all saw decreases in claims.
Last week's drop in initial claims was led by Pennsylvania and California, which are keeping federal benefits in place until September.
Initial applications for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for self-employed and gig workers decreased last week.
Altogether, 15.3 million people were receiving some type of jobless aid the week of May 22; a year earlier, the number exceeded 30 million.
Information for this article was contributed by Paul Wiseman of The Associated Press and by Payne Lubbers of Bloomberg News (TNS).