New unemployment claims in Washington state fell slightly last week, the fourth decline in as many weeks, but the overall labor market remains "fragile," a state economist said.
Washingtonians filed 16,102 new, or "initial," claims last week, a 2.2% decrease from the week before, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported Thursday. Nationally, new jobless claims fell 4.1% to 779,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
But the number of new claims in Washington was nearly two and a half times the number filed during the same week last year. And the total number of weekly, or continuing, claims filed last week rose nearly 2% to 463,425.
Although the job market has improved dramatically since the first pandemic-related layoffs last spring, "we are [still] seeing comparable new and continued claims activity to what we observed during the peak months of the Great Recession," said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, an ESD regional economist who covers the Seattle area. The steady and elevated number of claims suggests that the labor market "remains fragile as a whole but isn't experiencing any severe and acute shocks," Vance-Sherman added.
In December, 272,500 people were unemployed in Washington, according to the ESD's most recent employment report. The state's unemployment rate for December was 7.1%, up from 5.7% the month before. The U.S. unemployment rate was 6.7% in December.
Last week, the ESD paid benefits on 314,546 individual claims, up 4.8% from the prior week. But because individuals can have multiple claims, the number of claims is often slightly higher than the number of individual claimants.
Until recently, the ESD reported the number of individuals receiving benefits each week.
Also missing from the agency's report Thursday: the number of claimants who had not been paid and were waiting for the ESD to resolve an issue with their claim; the average time required to resolve a problem on a claim; and the average time claimants typically wait to receive their first payment.
Agency officials have said that claims data isn't available because newly extended federal benefits have changed how the ESD calculates who is receiving benefits and how long it takes to pay some claimants.
The agency has rolled out several new benefits authorized in the recent federal stimulus law, including an extra $300 a week that claimants began receiving in January.
Since March, more than 1 million Washingtonians have been paid more than $14 billion in jobless benefits, with roughly two-thirds of the money coming from the federal government.