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Jobless claims tumble below 500,000 in another sign the labor market is getting closer to pre-pandemic levels

The U.S. employment picture improved sharply last week, with first-time claims for unemployment insurance dipping below 500,000 for the first time since the pandemic crisis.

Initial claims totaled 498,000 for the week ended May 1, against the Dow Jones estimate of 527,000. That was down from the previous week’s total of 590,000, which saw a substantial upward revision from the initially reported 553,000.

While the jobs market still has a long way to go before it fully heals from the pandemic damage, improvement has accelerated in recent weeks as restrictions on activity continue to be lifted.

Though the pace has eased lately, the U.S. is still vaccinating more than 2 million people a day and soon will have half the population with at least one shot.

The claims decline comes a day before the Labor Department releases its nonfarm