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A person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images file

Layoff totals fall again, improve to pandemic-era low

The last time layoff totals were this low, the pandemic hadn't even started in earnest. The numbers are starting to look ... normal.

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The week before President Joe Biden's inauguration, weekly unemployment claims were still a painfully high 886,000. CNBC reported this morning on the newest data from the Labor Department, which offers the best news on layoffs we've seen in quite a while.

Weekly jobless claims hit another pandemic-era low last week as the elimination of enhanced benefits sent fewer people to the unemployment line. First-time filings for unemployment insurance totaled 290,000 for the week ended Oct. 16, down 6,000 from the previous period, the Labor Department reported Thursday. This was the second week in a row that claims ran below 300,000.

Circling back to our coverage from last week, it was in March 2020 when jobless claims first spiked in response to the Covid-19 crisis, climbing to over 3 million. That weekly total soon after reached nearly 7 million as the economy cratered. For 55 consecutive weeks, the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits was worse than at any time during the Great Recession.

All of that appears to be behind us. Looking at today's report, we haven't seen data this good since before the pandemic began in earnest.

Periodically over the course of the crisis, there have been understated threshold-based celebrations. When unemployment claims finally dipped below 1 million last August, it was a step in the right direction. When they fell below 800,000 in February, it offered similar evidence of slow, gradual progress. Fortunately, the pattern continued: Totals fell below 700,000 in March, below 600,000 in April, below 500,000 in early May, and below 400,000 in late May.

And now, finally, we've seen two weeks in a row in which jobless claims have dipped below 300,000.

Indeed, what we're approaching is something resembling normalcy. In the early months of 2020, the U.S. average on unemployment claims was roughly 211,000 — and while we haven't quite reached that total, we're at least within shouting distance for the first time in a long while.