Jobless claims fell last week to their lowest level of the pandemic and the latest data on retail sales blew past expectations, renewing confidence in a dynamic economic revival.
About 613,000 people filed first-time claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, a decrease of 153,000 from the previous week.
In addition, 132,000 filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 20,000 from the previous week.
Neither figure is seasonally adjusted. On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 576,000.
“We’re gaining momentum here, which is just unquestionable,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. But she cautioned that the jobless claims levels, while good news, were still extraordinarily high compared to what they were before the pandemic.
“You’re still not popping champagne corks,” she said. “I will breathe again — and breathe easy again — once we get these number back down in the 200,000 range.”
In another sign of the recovery underway, retail sales surged in March, the Commerce Department said Thursday, as Americans spent their latest round of government stimulus checks and the continued roll out of coronavirus vaccines lured more people back into stores.
The 9.8 percent increase last month was a strong comeback from the nearly 3 percent drop in February.
With the pandemic’s end seemingly in sight, the economy is poised for a robust comeback. But weekly applications for unemployment claims have remained stubbornly high for months, frustrating the recovery even as businesses reopen and vaccination rates increase. They have also been a volatile economic indicator, temporarily dipping to their lowest level of the pandemic in mid-March before rising again in recent weeks.
“The job market conditions for job seekers have really improved extremely quickly between January and now,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job site ZipRecruiter. “But there are still huge barriers to returning to work.”
Jobless claims for the next few months could remain significantly elevated as the labor market adjusts to a new normal.
Concerns about workplace safety persist, especially for workers on the younger end of the spectrum who have only just become eligible for vaccinations. Many children are still attending schools remotely, complicating the full-time work prospects for their caregivers.
But there is hope on the horizon as those barriers begin to fall. President Biden moved up the deadline for states to make all adults eligible for vaccination to April 19, and every state has complied. Students who have been learning remotely will begin to return to the classroom in earnest.
“This was the deepest, swiftest recession ever, but it’s also turning into the fastest recovery,” Ms. Pollak said. “And I don’t think we should lose sight of that just because some of the measures are a little stubborn.”