The total number of claims for all types of unemployment benefits was 19 million for the week ending Feb. 6.
Coronavirus cases have dropped sharply nationwide in recent weeks, propelling reopenings for shuttered businesses such as restaurants in states including California and New York.
Economists have cautioned about reading too deeply into the weekly claims data, noting that unemployment insurance statistics have been distorted by the problems with fraud and other issues at state unemployment agencies.
The weekly level of new claims has been above the pre-pandemic record of 695,000 since the onset of the national coronavirus outbreak in mid-March.
“A significant drop in weekly state unemployment claims may finally be a move to break through the 700,000 barrier, which has existed for months,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union. “Once we’re below that level on a sustained basis, we can finally say real progress is being made in employing more Americans after the terrible rise in covid-19 cases this winter.”
There have been some more positive signs in recent weeks, in addition to the drop in coronavirus cases. The monthly ISM index, a gauge of manufacturing strength, remains high. Retail sales increased 5.3 percent in January, surpassing lower expectations. And the housing market remains robust in many parts of the country.
But many economists are not expecting a broader pickup in the slumping labor market until later this year, as vaccinations power a potentially strong and lasting recovery.
Congress continues to debate the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, which would deliver more relief to unemployed workers, state and local governments, and schools, as well as $1,400 stimulus payments to most individuals.