U.S. unemployment claims fall to lowest level since pandemic

<p><p>WASHINGTON – The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to its lowest level since the pandemic began, a sign the job market is still improving even as hiring has slowed in the past two months.</p></p><p><p>Unemployment claims dropped 36,000 to 293,000 last week, the second straight drop, the Labor Department said Thursday.</p></p><p><p>That’s the smallest number of people to apply for benefits since the week of March 14, 2020, when the pandemic intensified, and the first time claims have dipped below 300,000.</p></p><p><p>Applications for jobless aid, which generally track the pace of layoffs, have fallen steadily since last spring as many businesses, struggling to fill jobs, have held onto their workers.</p></p><p><p>The decline in layoffs comes amid an otherwise unusual job market.</p></p><p><p>Hiring <a href=”https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-business-unemployment-health-bf233e99f16690a3e37cf102021b956a”>has slowed in the past two months</a>, even as companies and other employers have <a href=”https://apnews.com/article/business-health-coronavirus-pandemic-economy-67a34a2e9c416155bab6af1b0e3cfcf1″>posted a near-record number of open jobs</a>.</p></p><p><p>Businesses are struggling to find workers as about 3 million people who lost jobs and stopped looking for work since the pandemic have yet to resume their job searches.</p></p><p><p>Economists <a href=”https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-business-census-2020-pandemics-health-040531ba7bc9bf85c91cc89c72500d49″>hoped more people would find work in September</a> as schools reopened, easing child care constraints, and enhanced unemployment aid ended nationwide.</p></p><p><p>But the pickup didn’t happen, with <a href=”https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-business-unemployment-health-bf233e99f16690a3e37cf102021b956a”>employers adding just 194,000 jobs</a> last month.</p></p><p><p>In a bright spot, the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2%, though some of that decline occurred because many of those out of work stopped searching for jobs and were no longer counted as unemployed.</p></p><p><p>The proportion of women working or looking for work fell in September, likely because of difficulties finding child care or because of schools disrupted by COVID-19 outbreaks.</p></p><p><p>At the same time, Americans are <a href=”https://apnews.com/article/business-459c0884721a213985cdf0185a1176f8″>quitting their jobs in record numbers,</a> with about 3% of workers doing so in August.</p></p><p><p>Workers have been particularly likely to leave their service jobs <span class=”print_trim”>at restaurants, bars, and hotels, possibly spurred by fear of the delta variant of COVID-19, which was still spreading rapidly in August.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>Other workers likely quit to take advantage of higher wages offered by businesses with open positions.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>Average hourly pay rose at a healthy 4.6% in September from a year earlier, and for restaurant workers wage gains in the past year have topped 10%.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>The number of people continuing to receive unemployment aid has also fallen sharply, mostly as two emergency jobless aid programs have ended.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>In the week ending Sept. 25, the latest data available, 3.6 million people received some sort of jobless aid, down sharply from 4.2 million in the previous week.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>A year ago, nearly 25 million people were receiving benefits.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>The emergency programs provided unemployment payments for the first time to the self-employed and gig workers, and those who were out of work for more than six months.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>More than 7 million Americans lost weekly financial support when those two programs expired Sept. 6. An extra $300 in federal jobless aid also expired that week.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>Many business executives and Republican politicians said the extra $300 was discouraging those out of work from taking jobs.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>Yet in about half the states, the additional checks were cutoff as early as mid-June, and those states have not seen faster job growth than states that kept the benefits</span>.</p></p>