Here are 3 things to know about unemployment claims

on Jan20
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A job seeker receives information from a recruiter during a job fair in Miami, Florida, on Dec. 16, 2021.

Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The number of people filing for unemployment benefits jumped last week to the highest level since October, the Labor Department said Thursday.

That may signal a troubling rebound, after claims hit recent lows unseen in over 50 years. But the one-week bump may not portend an ugly trend for the labor market, according to economists.

Here’s what to know.


A recent surge in Covid cases, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, likely contributed to the spike in claims last week, economists said. But the extent of that impact is unclear.

Average daily U.S. Covid cases hit a recent peak of almost 798,000 on Jan. 15 — nearly double the tally from the beginning of the year and roughly eight times that of early December, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

About 8.8 million workers said they were out sick with the virus or caring for an ill family member between Dec. 29 and Jan. 10 — a pandemic-era record, according to federal data.

(A quirk in unemployment rules disallows benefits for workers who test positive for Covid; but someone who’s exposed or who loses hours due to a business shutdown may be eligible.)

However, elevated caseloads likely aren’t the only factor at play, according to economists.

Seasonal swings

That said, average unemployment claims have risen modestly, suggesting a slight upward trend. (The four- week average was up by 20,000 last week.)

“We are starting to see something. Maybe it’s just a little blip, and hopefully not a longer multi-week trend,” Konkel said. “My suspicion is this is the economic impact of the surge showing up in data.”

Historical standards

Despite last week’s pop, unemployment claims are still relatively low by historical standards. And layoffs aren’t likely to surge to levels from earlier in the pandemic, economists said.

Initial claims for benefits hovered around 215,000 in mid-January 2019 and 2020; 286,000 claims were filed last week.

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