WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week but remained at historically low levels, suggesting that the job market remains strong.
U.S. jobless claims rose by 7,000 last week to 207,000. The four-week average of claims, which smooths out week-to-week gyrations, rose by nearly 4,800 to just below 205,000. Despite the increases, the numbers show that weekly claims are below the 220,000 typical before the pandemic struck the U.S. economy in March 2020.
The highly transmissible omicron variant so far does not appear to have triggered significant layoffs.
Altogether, nearly 1.8 million Americans were collecting traditional unemployment aid the week that ended Dec. 25.
“Assuming any layoffs related to Omicron are limited amid tight labor market conditions, we expect initial claims to continue to hover around the (200,000) mark,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics.
Employers are reluctant to let workers go at a time when it’s so tough to find replacements. The United States posted 10.6 million job openings in November, the fifth highest monthly total in records going back to 2000. A record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November — a sign that they are confident enough in their prospects to seek something better.
The job market has bounced back from last year’s brief but intense coronavirus recession. When COVID hit, governments ordered lockdowns, consumers hunkered down at home and many businesses closed or cut back hours. Employers slashed more than 22 million jobs in March and April 2020, and the unemployment rate rocketed to 14.8%.
But massive government spending — and eventually the rollout of vaccines — brought the economy back. Employers have added 18.5 million jobs since April 2020, still leaving the U.S. still 3.9 million jobs short of what it had before the pandemic. Economists expect that Friday’s jobs report will show that the economy generated another 400,000 jobs in December, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet.
The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.2%, close to what economists consider full employment.