WASHINGTON - New claims for jobless benefits in the United States fell sharply last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, as the world's biggest economy continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
A total of 498,000 out-of-work employees filed for unemployment compensation, down 92,000 from the revised figure of the week before, the agency said. The figure was the lowest total since mid-March 2020, when the pandemic first swept into the country, although still more than twice the pre-coronavirus weekly average of 218,000 in 2019.
More than 40% of U.S. adults have now been vaccinated against the coronavirus, boosting the economic recovery, although the pace of inoculations has dropped in recent days.
Even so, more Americans are re-engaging in public, going out to eat, traveling and spending on consumer goods they had stopped buying during the worst of the pandemic, spending partly fueled by government assistance sent to all but the biggest wage earners.
Employers added 916,000 jobs in March, with the government releasing the April figure on Friday. Some economists are predicting the country's jobless rate ticked down from the 6% figure in March.
Even as many employers are looking for more workers, the country's central bank remains wary about the recovery.
A week ago, the Federal Reserve held its benchmark interest rate near zero and said it plans to continue supporting the economic recovery, even as it acknowledged that the U.S. economy is improving.
"Amid progress on vaccinations and strong policy support, indicators of economic activity and employment have strengthened," the Fed said after a two-day policy meeting.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told reporters that the recovery has advanced "more quickly than generally expected," while adding it "remains uneven and far from complete."
Even as health experts continue to urge caution about the coronavirus, some state governors are revoking orders for people to wear face masks and allowing businesses to fully reopen, or setting dates in coming weeks when they say businesses can ramp up.
Still, crowds at most sporting events remain curtailed, at-home work is commonplace and the number of full school reopenings with in-class instruction is spotty throughout the country.
The employment picture in the U.S. has been boosted as money from President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package filters through the economy. The measure could add to hiring and consumer spending, as millions of Americans, all but the highest wage earners, are now receiving $1,400 stimulus checks from the government or have already been sent the extra cash.
Biden has proposed an additional $4 trillion in government spending on infrastructure repairs and assistance for children and families, but the fate of the proposals in a politically divided Congress is uncertain.
The number of vaccinations against the coronavirus has now also dropped to about 2 million a day, as some people remain skeptical about getting a shot, which could limit the country's economic recovery. All adults in the U.S. are eligible to get a shot if they want one.
More than 107 million American adults are fully inoculated with one of the three available vaccines.