The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to a new pandemic low last week as the job market continues its slow recovery from last year's coronavirus recession.

Unemployment claims dropped by 10,000 to 281,000 last week, a fourth straight drop and the lowest since mid-March 2020, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Since topping 900,000 in early January, weekly applications have steadily dropped, moving closer to pre-pandemic levels just above 200,000.

The four-week average of claims, which smooths out week-to-week gyrations, fell by nearly 21,000 to 299,250, also a pandemic low.

In all, 2.2 million people were collecting unemployment checks the week of October 16, down from 7.7 million a year earlier.

U.S. jobless claims fell for the fourth straight week to 281,000, with the lowest number of people applying for benefits since the COVID pandemic began in the beginning months of 2020

U.S. jobless claims fell for the fourth straight week to 281,000, with the lowest number of people applying for benefits since the COVID pandemic began in the beginning months of 2020 

Unemployment claims dropped by 10,000 last week, but the U.S. continues to see hiring slow down. (Pictured: A Now Hiring sign hangs near the entrance to a Winn-Dixie Supermarket on September 21, in Hallandale, Florida)

Unemployment claims dropped by 10,000 last week, but the U.S. continues to see hiring slow down. (Pictured: A Now Hiring sign hangs near the entrance to a Winn-Dixie Supermarket on September 21, in Hallandale, Florida)

The pandemic slammed the economy in the spring of 2020 when employers slashed more than 22 million jobs as businesses closed or reduced hours in response to lockdowns and consumers staying home as a health precaution.

The economy began its recovery in early 2021, helped by the rollout of vaccines and government relief checks and other spending. 

Jobless claims 'continue to trend lower, gradually moving closer to levels prevailing prior to the recession,' Rubeela Farooqi, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a research report. 'Businesses are holding on to workers amid reports of severe labor shortages.´ 


Unemployment claims are increasingly returning to normal, but many other aspects of the job market haven't yet done so. 

Hiring has slowed in the past two months, even as companies and other employers have posted a near-record number of open jobs. 

In September, the economy had reclaimed more than 17 million of the lost jobs. But that was still 5 million short of where the labor market stood in February 2020.

There are fears that the U.S. will see mass layoffs for employees to fail to comply with President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate

There are fears that the U.S. will see mass layoffs for employees to fail to comply with President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate

And hiring slowed sharply last month - to just 194,000 new jobs after averaging a 607,000 a month the first eight months of the year. 

That is partly because companies can't find enough people to fill their job openings - which topped at 10.4 million in August, the second-highest in records going back to 2000.

The highest rates of vacant jobs are in the leisure and hospitality and food services industries. While, construction companies and manufacturers reported strong job growth in September public education institutions recorded the lowest dip in hiring.

But professional business services and education and health services continue to maintain massive gaps between the number of open jobs compared to the amount of workers unemployed in those fields.

There are also fears of mass layoffs across the U.S. for those who fail to comply with President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for all government employees, federal contractors and businesses with 100 or more employees. 

Nearly 78 percent of all eligible Americans have gotten at least one jab of the COVID-19 vaccine, and about 58 percent are fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University.  

Nearly 78 percent of all eligible Americans have gotten at least one jab of the vaccine

Nearly 78 percent of all eligible Americans have gotten at least one jab of the vaccine

There are more job openings than unemployed people in some sectors, suggesting that bigger factors are at play, such as a re-evaluation of work-life balance after the pandemic

There are more job openings than unemployed people in some sectors, suggesting that bigger factors are at play, such as a re-evaluation of work-life balance after the pandemic

Officials such as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell had hoped more people would find work in September as schools reopened, vaccination rates increased, and enhanced unemployment aid ended nationwide.

Yet so far, that hasn't happened.

'I am a little bit puzzled, to be honest,' Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist for the investment bank Jefferies told the New York Times. 'We all waited for September for this big flurry of hiring on the premise that unemployment benefits and school reopening would bring people back to the labor force. And it just doesn't seem like we're seeing that.' 

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell (seen above on Capitol Hill on September 30) had previously shared his hopes that more people would find work in September as schools reopened with jobs and childcare

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell (seen above on Capitol Hill on September 30) had previously shared his hopes that more people would find work in September as schools reopened with jobs and childcare 

Unemployment claims have dropped for the fourth straight week, according to the Labor Department (Pictured: A hiring sign is displayed at a furniture store window on September 17, in Downers Grove, Illinois)

Unemployment claims have dropped for the fourth straight week, according to the Labor Department (Pictured: A hiring sign is displayed at a furniture store window on September 17, in Downers Grove, Illinois) 

Supply chain bottlenecks and COVID contributed to the unimpressive numbers, and despite a record number of job openings, many of those laid off have not returned to the job search.

Instead, some observers are starting to consider whether some of those who had jobs before the pandemic, and lost them, may have permanently stopped looking for work.

On Tuesday, Christopher Waller, a member of the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, said that two million of the 22 million jobs lost to the pandemic may not return anytime soon because retirements have accelerated quickly since COVID hit.

About 7 million people lost jobless benefits in September after two emergency programs, set up in March 2020, expired. 

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