WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell below 1 million last week for the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States, but that does not signal a strong recovery in the labor market.
The drop in initial claims to a five-month low reported by the Labor Department on Thursday largely reflected a change in the methodology it used to address seasonal fluctuations in the data, which economists complained had become less reliable because of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus crisis.
There are growing signs the labor market recovery from the depths of the pandemic in mid-March through April is faltering, with financial support from the government virtually depleted.
“There are new seasonal adjustment factors this week which brings down the joblessness slightly,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “The labor market looks just as bad as it was and it will be a miracle if economic growth can continue at such a fast clip during this recovery if it has to drag along millions and millions of workers without paychecks.”
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 130,000 to a seasonally adjusted 881,000 for the week ended Aug. 29. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 950,000 applications in the latest week. A staggering 29.2 million people were on unemployment benefits in mid-August.
The Labor Department has switched to using additive factors to more accurately track seasonal fluctuations in the series. The government dropped the multiplicative seasonal adjustment factors it had been using because they could cause systematic over-or under-adjustment of the data in the presence of a large shift in the claims series.
Unadjusted claims rose 7,591 to 833,352 last week. The increase in the raw numbers, which many economists prefer to focus on, added to a raft of data suggesting the labor market recovery was ebbing.
A report on Wednesday from the Federal Reserve based on information collected from the U.S. central bank’s contacts on or before Aug. 24 showed an increase in employment. The Fed, however, noted that “some districts also reported slowing job growth and increased hiring volatility, particularly in service industries, with rising instances of furloughed workers being laid off permanently as demand remained soft.” Reuters