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Jobless claims hit new pandemic-era low in a sign of hope for the employment picture

First-time filings for unemployment insurance hit a pandemic-era low last week, a sign that the jobs market is improving heading into the fall despite worries over the delta Covid variant.

Jobless claims for the week ended Aug. 14 totaled 348,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday. That was below the Dow Jones estimate for 365,000 and a decline of 29,000 from the previous week.

The last time claims were this low was March 14, 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic declaration hit and sent the U.S. economy spiraling into its deepest but briefest recession on record.

In the weeks that followed, more than 22 million Americans would be sent to the unemployment line, sending the jobless rate skyrocketing to 14.8%. The jobs market has been on a steady recovery trajectory since then but remains well off its pre-pandemic health.

Stocks were volatile following the news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average well off its lows for the morning and down just slightly in early trading.

Continuing claims also fell, dropping to 2.82 million on a 79,000 decline from the week before. That data runs a week behind the headline claims number and also represented a new low since the pandemic struck.

The total of those collecting benefits under all programs fell to 11.74 million, a decline of 311,787 for the week ended July 31 and owing mostly to a big drop in those receiving enhanced benefits, which will come to a complete close in September. A year ago, the total under all programs stood at 28.7 million.

A sizable chunk of the decline in claims came from Texas, which fell by 8,311, according to unadjusted data. Illinois also declined 3,577 and Michigan was lower by 2,188.

Overall, the drop could be good news for a jobs market that has seen nonfarm payrolls increase by 2.5 million over the past three months and the unemployment rate fall to 5.4% from 6.3% at the beginning of the year. Thursday’s data reflects the period the Labor Department uses as its survey week for the monthly nonfarm payrolls count.

There remains, however, a large jobs gap, with some 6 million fewer Americans considered employed now than prior to the pandemic. There also were 8.7 million workers looking for jobs in July, though that was well below the 10 million or so job openings in the U.S.

Economists see a multitude of reasons for the inability to get back to full employment. Among them are ongoing fears about the pandemic, workers pressing for higher wages and the enhanced government benefits that have lowered the incentives for taking jobs.

Wages have been increasing in response to the current conditions, with average hourly earnings up 4% year over year in July. Prior to the pandemic, that would have been a record in data going back to March 2007.

A separate report Thursday showed the pace of manufacturing growth in the Philadelphia region slowed in August. The Philadelphia Fed’s manufacturing index declined to 19.4 from 21.9 the month before. The reading represents the percent diff