U.S. unemployment claims drop to 198,000

<p><p>WASHINGTON – The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell below 200,000, more evidence that the job market remains strong in the aftermath of last year’s coronavirus recession.</p></p><p><p>Jobless claims dropped by 8,000 to 198,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday.</p></p><p><p>The four-week average, which smooths out week-to-week volatility, fell to just above 199,000, the lowest level since October 1969.</p></p><p><p>The numbers suggest that the fast-spreading omicron variant has yet to trigger a wave of layoffs.</p></p><p><p>Altogether, 1.7 million Americans were collecting traditional unemployment aid the week that ended Dec. 18.</p></p><p><p>That was the lowest since March 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to slam the U.S. economy, and down by 140,000 from the week before.</p></p><p><p>The weekly claims numbers, a proxy for layoffs, have fallen steadily most of the year.</p></p><p><p>Employers are reluctant to let workers go at a time when it’s so tough to find replacements.</p></p><p><p>The United States had a near-record 11 million job openings in October, and 4.2 million Americans quit their jobs – just off September’s record 4.4 million – because there are so many opportunities.</p></p><p><p>The job market has bounced back from last year’s brief but intense coronavirus recession.</p></p><p><p>When COVID hit, governments ordered lockdowns, consumers hunkered down at home and many businesses closed or cut back hours.</p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>Employers slashed more than 22 million jobs in March and April 2020, and the unemployment rate rocketed to 14.8%.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>But massive government spending – and eventually the rollout of vaccines – brought the economy back.</span></p></p><p><p>Employers have added 18.5 million jobs since April 2020, still leaving the U.S. 3.9 million jobs short of what it had before the pandemic.</p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>The December jobs report, out next week, is expected to show that the economy generated another 374,000 jobs this month.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.2%, close to what economists consider full employment.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>“The overall picture painted by these data points to a rapid pace of job growth,’’ said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at the consulting firm Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc.</span></p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”>Hiring would have been even stronger “had businesses been able to hire as many workers as they wished.’’</span></p></p>