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More people filed jobless claims in the first week of 2022. “Blame Omicron,” one expert said.

December jobs report: 199,000 jobs added
December jobs report: 199,000 jobs added 03:46

The number of people filing for jobless aid rose slightly in the first week of the year, to the highest level since November.

Some 230,000 people filed first-time unemployment claims in the week ended January 8, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's an increase of 23,000 from the previous week, but still in line with typical weekly levels before the pandemic.

Weekly jobless applications, a proxy for layoffs, have now risen for four of the last five weeks, possibly a sign that the Omicron variant is having an impact on the job market, which has bounced back strongly from last year's coronavirus recession.

"Blame the increase in first-time claimants on the Omicron," Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note.

Altogether, 1.6 million people were collecting jobless aid the week that ended January 1.

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With signs that Omicron cases may be peaking in the United Kingdom and declining in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, economists hope any job market disruptions will be short-lived.

"Claims may remain elevated in the near term, but we expect initial claims will gravitate back to the 200K level once the Omicron wave passes," analysts at Oxford Economics wrote in a note.

Companies are holding onto workers at a time when it's difficult to find replacements. Employers posted 10.6 million job openings in November, the fifth-highest monthly total on record going back to 2000. A record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November — a sign that they were confident enough to look for something better.

Hiring slowed in November and December, which economists attributed to a lack of workers. The unemployment rate fell last month to a pandemic low of 3.9%, signaling that those looking for jobs are finding them fairly easily.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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