Jobless Claims Rise, Pausing Recent Downward Trend -- 2nd Update
By Hannah Lang
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 up.
The Labor Department on Thursday said the increase to 861,000
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 March.
"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 House.
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
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 dining.
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
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
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. Konkel said.
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 anymore.' "
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
Write to Hannah Lang at Hannah.Lang@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 18, 2021 13:06 ET (18:06 GMT)
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