By Gwynn Guilford 

Weekly unemployment claims have in recent weeks reached their lowest level since the Covid-19 pandemic began more than a year ago, a signal that the labor-market rebound is gathering force.

Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expect worker filings for jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, to have fallen to 527,000 last week from 553,000 the prior week. That would bring the four-week average of initial claims, which smooths out volatility in weekly data, to the lowest point since the pandemic took hold, though still well above pre-pandemic levels. The Labor Department will release the latest unemployment-claims figures on Thursday morning.

"Overall it looks like we're seeing healing in the jobs market," said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist for S&P Global Ratings, who expects the number of initial jobless claims to have slipped to 510,000 last week.

"That's much better than just over a year ago, but that's still double what there was pre-crisis," she said. "It would be [considered] bad in a normal recession, let's just put it that way."

With more than two-fifths of U.S. adults now fully vaccinated, Americans are spending on restaurant meals, travel and other services that they had shunned over the past year due to fear of Covid-19 and business restrictions. At the same time, government stimulus is boosting economic activity more generally.

Economists are closely watching unemployment-claims numbers for signs that companies are holding on to workers as businesses scramble to keep up with the upswing in demand.

This improvement will likely be captured in the Labor Department's April employment report, which the department will release Friday. Economists forecast that the U.S. economy added one million jobs last month, compared with a gain of 916,000 in March, and project that the jobless rate ticked down to 5.8% from 6% a month earlier.

However, the pandemic's impact was so severe that economists expect employment to close out this year 1.6% lower than in the fourth quarter of 2019, despite the swift pace of hiring they anticipate in coming months. The number of new jobless claims peaked at more than six million in the spring of 2020. After falling sharply, it then plateaued between 700,000 and 900,000 throughout the fall and winter.

The decline in claims over the past few weeks is "definitely a positive sign that there are not as many layoffs happening," said Citigroup economist Veronica Clark. "It's a good sign that a return of activity levels is creating a more normal labor market."

Other signs also indicate that demand for workers is growing. A number of big employers, including Inc., have recently announced increases in pay.

At the end of April, job postings on Indeed, a job-search site, were 24% above where they were in February 2020, ahead of when the pandemic took hold in the U.S., after adjusting for seasonal variation. Ads for jobs in retail, cleaning and sanitation, hospitality and tourism, and restaurants have surged in the past few weeks as businesses reopen and activity revs up.

While the number of new applications has been declining, the level of Americans receiving unemployment benefits remains elevated. About 16.6 million workers were receiving benefits in the week ended April 10 via one of several programs, including regular state aid and federal emergency programs put in place in response to the pandemic. While that figure, which isn't adjusted for seasonality, has come down in recent weeks, it was still nearly 10 times the number of people collecting benefits before the pandemic's onset.

A coronavirus relief package passed in March expanded eligibility for extended unemployment benefits until early September and continued a $300-a-week supplement to the amount authorized by states. While unemployment benefits typically expire after six months or less, federal extensions enacted during the pandemic will allow some people to receive payments for about 18 months.

Some economists say the extended and enhanced benefits are discouraging workers from returning to work, especially those earning lower wages. Others say the payments have provided income support to those who can't return to work because of a lack of child care, fears of contracting the virus or a lack of the skills to shift into working in fast-growing sectors such as logistics or construction.

Despite the building economic momentum, Ms. Clark said it might not be until September, when extended unemployment benefits end and schools are set to resume in person, that many workers are drawn back into the labor force full-time.

Write to Gwynn Guilford at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 06, 2021 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.