The number of Americans filing first-time unemployment claims dropped to its lowest level since late November, while the ranks of those receiving long-term jobless assistance swelled.
Roughly 730,000 people filed for unemployment benefits in the week ended February 20, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's a drop of 111,000 from the prior week. Another 451,000 people applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program for self-employed and gig workers.
"Despite weekly directional changes, the magnitude of total initial claims is still extreme at 5.6 times higher than the pre-COVID era," AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, said in a note.
Before the virus erupted in the U.S. last March, weekly applications for unemployment benefits hovered around 200,000 and had never topped 700,000, even during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
Widespread winterlast week likely played a role in the reduced claims. "Winter weather throughout much of the country and widespread power outages in Texas likely prevented some laid-off workers from filing for unemployment insurance benefits," Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services, said in a note.
The number of people receiving Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a program for those whose jobless aid has expired, swelled to 5 million, up by 1 million from the week before.
As early February, the most recent data available, over 19 million people were receiving some sort of jobless aid, an increase from 18.3 million in late January.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.