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WASHINGTON -The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, though the labor market recovery is gaining traction as economic activity picks up, driven by increased vaccinations and massive fiscal stimulus.
That was confirmed by other data on Thursday showing a measure of manufacturing activity soared to its strongest level in more than 37 years in March, with employment at factories the highest since February 2018. Layoffs announced by U.S. companies in March were also the fewest in more than 2-1/2 years.
Initial claims have been distorted by backlogs, multiple filings and fraud, making it difficult to get a clear signal on the labor market's health from the weekly data.
"Higher jobless claims in the most recent week don't detract from the strong downward trend, which will continue given the reopening of local and state economies, and the acceleration of vaccinations," said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits jumped 61,000 to a seasonally adjusted 719,000 for the week ended March 27, the Labor Department said.
Data for the prior week was revised to show 26,000 fewer applications received than previously reported, pushing total filings down to 658,000 and below their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession. In a healthy labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.
The government revised the claims data from 2016, which showed applications hitting a record 6.149 million in April 2020, instead of 6.867 million in March 2020.
A staggering 79 million claims were filed under the regular state (UI) programs since mid-March 2020 when mandatory closures of non-essential businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms were being enforced across many states to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.
About 28 more million applications were submitted under the government-funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PAU) program, which covers the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the UI programs.
"Together, that equates to 70% of payrolls, or 67% of household employment, pre-pandemic and reflects duplicate filings and fraud," said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"But also the tremendous churn in the labor market since COVID, with some workers losing jobs more than once as restrictions and activity fluctuated this past year."
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 680,000 applications in the latest week. Virginia accounted for the bulk of the rise. There were also notable increases in California, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York.
Including the PUA program, 951,458 people filed claims last week, remaining below one million for a second straight week.