US weekly jobless claims rise again, but labour market recovery gaining steam

Reports show the economy created 916,000 jobs in March, the most in seven months, and job openings increased to a two-year high in February

A worker prepares to clean a room at the ‘Tween Waters Island Resort and Spa hotel in Captiva Island, Florida, Florida, U.S., on Friday, April 2, 2021. A resurgent job market is creating more opportunities at a faster clip than many economists and employers expected. What's more, too few people are applying for positions that are reopening, and that's setting up a battle for talent. Photographer: Lisette Morales/Bloomberg
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The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, but the increase likely understated the rapidly improving labour market conditions as more parts of the economy reopen and fiscal stimulus kicks in.

The second straight weekly increase in claims reported by the Labour Department on Thursday was at odds with reports this month showing the economy created 916,000 jobs in March, the most in seven months, and job openings increased to a two-year high in February. Households have also been upbeat in their assessment of the labour market.

"Our belief is that continued moves to reopen the economy will result in a solid further advance in payrolls in the April jobs report and that the claims data are likely not capturing the pace of improvement in the labour market," said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic adviser at Brean Capital in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased by 16,000 to a seasonally adjusted 744,000 for the week ending April 3, compared to 728,000 in the week prior. Data for the prior week was revised to show 9,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 680,000 applications for the latest week. Some speculated that spring break-related school closings, the Easter holiday and churn in some industries were behind the surprise rise.

Others believed the unprecedented surge in claims in March 2020, when mandatory closures of non-essential businesses were enforced across many states to slow the first wave of Covid-19 infections, was making it difficult to adjust the data for seasonal fluctuations.

"We suspect that the seasonal adjustment process is the main culprit behind the confounding volatility in claims data in recent weeks as the economy passed the one-year anniversary of the lockdowns from last spring," said Michael Gapen, chief US economist at Barclays in New York.

Even so, unadjusted claims rose 18,172 to 740,787 last week.

Some economists also believed the expansion of benefits, including a government-funded $300 weekly subsidy and programme for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment insurance programmes, was contributing to keeping claims high.

The labour market stumbled in December, but has regained its footing thanks to the White House's $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package and an acceleration in the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations, which are allowing more services businesses to resume operations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests companies are recalling workers laid off during the pandemic and hiring new employees.

But the labour market recovery still has a long way to go. Employment is 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.