New unemployment claims in Washington fell slightly last week as the state’s halting economic recovery gathered some momentum. 

Washingtonians filed 11,699 new, or “initial,” claims last week, a 0.5% decrease from the previous week, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported Thursday.

It was the smallest number of new claims since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — and a welcome sign of improvement in a job market that has been battered for roughly a year by COVID-19 and related business restrictions.

Still, new claims were nearly double the number filed the same week last year, which indicated continued anxiety and pessimism among some employers, economists said.

“The fact that we are still seeing nearly twice the number of unemployment insurance applications today relative to last year speaks to the continuing fragility of the local economy,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, an ESD regional labor economist who covers the Seattle area. “The still elevated number of claims tells me that businesses are continuing to struggle.”

Among those struggling: Liberty Orchards, the Cashmere, Chelan County-based maker of Aplets & Cotlets that announced this week it would shut down June 1 after the pandemic scuttled plans to find a buyer.

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“We had a number of interested parties [but] when the pandemic came on last spring, they walked away from exploring it further because they had bigger issues with their own businesses,” Greg Taylor, president of the 101-year-old company, told The Wenatchee World.

The fragility in the state economy was evident in other jobs data as well.

Although Washington’s unemployment rate for February fell to 5.6%, from 6% in January, the ESD reported, the state job market report for January, the most recent available, showed the state adding just 4,400 jobs. 

That’s an improvement over December, as a second shutdown contributed to a loss of 5,400 jobs that month. But January’s growth pales against the robust rebound of last summer, when the state added between 30,500 and 83,800 jobs a month.

In January, the state’s total labor force stood at 3,835,200 workers, which is still 120,000 fewer than in January 2020, the ESD reported.

Nationally, new jobless claims rose 6.2% to 770,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported.

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State economist Paul Turek acknowledged Washington’s anemic job growth, but added that employment numbers should gradually improve in coming months. 

“January’s employment gain only partially reverses [December’s] decline, but as more vaccinations are given and business conditions improve, the labor market recovery should strengthen,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

Among the business sectors in the state that saw the largest number of new jobless claims last week were construction, with 1,752; food service and accommodation, 1,177; retail, 1,122; and manufacturing, 917.

The total number of weekly, or continuing, claims filed in Washington last week rose 1.1% from the prior week, to 435,659.

Last week, the ESD paid benefits on 310,552 individual claims, which was down around 1% from the prior week. Because individuals can have multiple claims, the number of claims is often slightly higher than the number of individual claimants.

Since March 2020, more than 1 million Washingtonians have been paid more than $15.8 billion in jobless benefits, with roughly two-thirds of the money coming from the federal government.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.