First-time claims for U.S. unemployment compensation dropped last week to their lowest point since the coronavirus pandemic swept into the United States more than a year and a half ago, the Labor Department reported Thursday. 

A total of 293,000 jobless workers filed for assistance, down 36,000 from the revised figure of the week before. It was the lowest claims figure since the 256,000 total in mid-March last year, the government said.

The new figure was an indication the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, remains on a general recovery from the worst economic effects of the 19-month coronavirus pandemic, even as President Joe Biden and Washington policy makers voice concerns about other economic warning signs.

Filings for unemployment compensation often have been seen as a current reading of the country’s economic health, but economists are wary of sharply rising consumer prices, consumer goods supply chain issues that have severely slowed the unloading of dozens of container ships off the U.S. Pacific coast, and meager job growth.

Even as the U.S. said last month that its world-leading economy grew by an annualized rate of 6.7% in the April-to-June period, in September it added only a disappointing 194,000 new jobs, down further from the August figure of 235,000. The jobless rate fell to 4.8%, but that was because thousands of workers dropped out of the labor force.

 

The two-month total of more jobs was down sharply from the more than 2 million combined figure added in June and July.

 

About 8.4 million workers remain unemployed in the United States. There are 10.4 million available jobs in the country, but the skills of the available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live.

Even with the limited job growth, the size of the U.S. economy — nearly $23 trillion — now exceeds its pre-pandemic level as it recovers faster than many economists had predicted during the worst of the business closings more than a year ago.

Policy makers at the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank, have signaled that in November they could start reversing the bank’s pandemic stimulus programs and next year could begin to increase its benchmark interest rate.

How fast the U.S. economic growth continues is unclear. The delta variant of the coronavirus is posing a threat to the recovery even as the number of new cases has been declining in recent weeks, now down to under 100,000 a day from the 150,000 or so that were being recorded. The number of deaths each day also has been dropping somewhat below the 2,000 total of a few weeks ago.

But more than 65 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated — and many are refusing to get inoculated. Thousands of workers have gotten shots in the last three weeks, some under the threat from their employers that they would be fired from their jobs if they did not.

Biden has ordered workers at companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for the coronavirus. In addition, he is requiring 2.5 million national government workers and contractors who work for the government to get vaccinated if they haven’t already been inoculated, but it will be weeks before the mandates take full effect.

Some anti-vaccination advocates are filing suit to block Biden’s orders while a handful of conservative Republican state governors, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, remain adamantly opposed to vaccination mandates in their states. But some local school districts and businesses are ignoring their directives and imposing the mandates anyway. 

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults have now been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and overall, 56.6% of the U.S. population of 332 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.