Applications for U.S. state unemployment benefits rose last week but remained near the lowest levels of the pandemic as the labor market recovery continues.
Initial unemployment claims totaled 206,000 in the week ended Dec. 11, up 18,000 from the prior period, Labor Department data showed Thursday. The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for an increase to 200,000 applications.
Continuing claims for state benefits dropped to 1.85 million in the week ended Dec. 4, a fresh pandemic low.
The increase in applications marks a small rise from the 52-year low recorded in the prior period, though the broader level level of claims still points to a recovering labor market. Firms have been reluctant to let go of staff as they struggle to meet robust demand for goods and services amid widespread labor shortages.
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Claims figures have been choppy in recent weeks, reflecting challenges around adjusting the raw data for seasonal effects during the holiday period. Still, economists broadly agree that the labor market is very tight, and applications are generally consistent with pre-pandemic levels.
However, a rise in Covid-19 hospitalizations in many states and lingering uncertainties over the new omicron variant threaten to disrupt the pace of hiring heading into the new year.
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday decided to quicken the pace of reducing its asset purchases, reflecting both higher inflation and a strengthening labor market. Chair Jerome Powell said the economy has yet to reach maximum employment, and participation could be constrained for some time.
A separate report on Thursday showed U.S. home construction starts strengthened in November to the fastest pace in eight months, suggesting builders are making a bit more headway on backlogs against a backdrop of lingering supply and labor constraints.
The four-week moving average of initial applications, which smooths out large swings in the data, dropped to 203,750.
On an unadjusted basis, claims decreased by about 16,000.
Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia led states with the biggest increases in unadjusted claims from the prior week, while New York, Texas and North Carolina recorded significant declines.
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