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Unemployment claims fall to pandemic-era low

Federal aid programs plagued by delays
Some struggling families are still waiting on government aid 06:43

The number of Americans filing for first-time jobless aid last week fell to its lowest level since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in 2020, a sign layoffs are easing as the economy recovers.

Some 547,000 people applied for unemployment benefits in the week ended April 17, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's 39,000 fewer than the previous week and the lowest weekly number since March 14, 2020. About 133,000 others applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program for self-employed and gig workers.

The trend continues a sharp drop seen last week, signaling that layoffs will become less frequent as more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine and consumers pick up their activity.

"As the economy reopens, businesses can hold on to staff they would otherwise have had to let go," Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics said in a research note. "We expect further declines over the next few months as the reopening continues, while payroll growth will accelerate markedly."

The latest jobless claims figure is far below the roughly 1 million weekly applications the nation saw in January. But it remains more than twice its pre-pandemic level of about 250,000, showing how much further the recovery has to go.

"While new layoffs have slowed considerably, they are still nowhere near the level associated with a stable labor market," Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said in a statement.

More than 17 million people still on jobless aid

While fewer Americans applied for unemployment last week, the number of those receiving long-term benefits ticked up. In the first week of April, the most recent data available, 17.4 million people were receiving some sort of jobless aid, half a million more than in late March. Most of the increase occurred in two states, California and Texas, which process their claims every other week.

Weekly jobless claims are typically a proxy for layoffs, but they've become less reliable during the pandemic. Many states have struggled to clear backlogs of unemployment applications, and suspected fraud has clouded the actual volume of job cuts. 

In addition, a supplemental $300-a-week federal jobless payment, on top of regular state unemployment aid, might have encouraged more people to apply for benefits.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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