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As year wraps up, layoffs unexpectedly remain at a 52-year low

The new data on unemployment claims hasn't just improved, it's actually far better than the pre-pandemic levels.
A person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images file

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 offered some of the best news on layoffs since the late 1960s.

Initial filings for unemployment insurance dipped last week and remained close to their lowest level in more than 50 years, the Labor Department reported Thursday. Jobless claims for the week ended Dec. 25 totaled 198,000, less than the 205,000 Dow Jones forecast and a dip of 8,000 from the previous period.

Note, this isn't literally the lowest total in 52 years — that benchmark was set earlier this month — but it's awfully close.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, 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.

Thankfully, all of that appears to be behind us.

Periodically over the course of the crisis, there have been understated threshold-based celebrations. When unemployment claims finally dipped below 1 million in August 2020, it was a step in the right direction. When they fell below 800,000 in February of this year, 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.

In early October, jobless claims finally dipped below 300,000 — putting us within shouting distance of the levels seen before the Covid-19 crisis began in earnest — and now we've dipped below 200,000 for the third time since mid-November, which hardly seemed possible in the recent past.

For nearly two years, the goal was to reach a number that resembled normalcy. In the early months of 2020, the U.S. average on unemployment claims was roughly 211,000, and many have wondered how long it would take to get back to such a total.

As of today, we've not only reached the pre-pandemic average, we've also improved on it. The economy still needs work, but breakthroughs like these are still worth celebrating.

Postscript: Some friends recently asked me about the difference between these numbers and the monthly job numbers, so let's quickly recap the relevant details.

Every Thursday morning, the Labor Department issues a report documenting first-time unemployment filings nationwide. This data, which is revised a week later, effectively summarizes the number of Americans who were laid off the week prior. It does not include people who voluntarily left the workforce through retirement or those who quit their jobs, and are therefore ineligible for jobless benefits.

It's an important weekly look at the employment landscape for an obvious reason: The more Americans are laid off, the worse it appears for the economy. The inverse is also true: As layoff totals improve, it's evidence of a healthier economy.

The first Friday of every month, however, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a more comprehensive report. It doesn't count weekly layoffs; it counts the total number of jobs created from the previous month. The two numbers are related, but they don't always move together: Just because employers aren't firing workers doesn't necessarily mean that employers are hiring workers.

It's partly why the monthly report generates far more attention: It gives us a look into how many jobs are being created, whether wages are going up or down, what the overall unemployment rate is, etc.

This month's jobs report will be released a week from tomorrow.