New applications for US unemployment benefits dipped below 300,000 last week for the first time since Covid-19 sent them skyrocketing into the millions early last year, according to government data released Thursday.
There were 293,000 initial claims for unemployment benefit submitted the week ended October 9, the Labor Department said, 36,000 less than the previous week.
That took the total closer to the 256,000 filed in the week of March 14, 2020, just before the pandemic caused mass layoffs.
Weekly jobless claims, a closely watched metric of labor market health, remained elevated throughout 2020, but dropped substantially this year as Covid-19 vaccines allowed businesses to reopen.
They level has oscillated in recent weeks as the Delta variant injected uncertainty into the labor market, but analysts saw last week's drop as proof of an improving employment situation.
"Initial claims are now within striking distance of their pre-pandemic level, which could be reached later this year as the Delta wave recedes and hiring improves," Daniel Zhao of job search site Glassdoor said on Twitter.
Another 21,624 claims, not seasonally adjusted, were filed last week under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was created to aid freelance workers not normally eligible for aid but expired weeks ago.
All told, more than 3.6 million people were receiving jobless benefits under all programs as of the week ended September 25, the latest for which data was available.
The report showed another record low was seen in insured unemployment, the share of workers actually receiving benefits.
As of October 2, 2,593,000 people were receiving regular benefits, a drop of 134,000 from the prior week and the lowest level since the pandemic began.
The insured unemployment rate as of that week was 1.9 percent, slightly lower than the week before, the report said.