Workers in Washington state last week filed the smallest number of new unemployment claims since mid-March, when the pandemic was just hitting the state economy.
But experts say it’s far from clear whether that decline represents a statistical blip or a legitimate sign of an awakening job market.
For the week ending Aug. 1, the state received 24,985 new, or initial, claims for regular unemployment insurance, a drop of 13.4% from the prior week, the state Employment Security Department reported Thursday.
Nationwide, the number of new claims fell 17.4%, to 1.4 million, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
The state’s weekly claims number is still high by historical standards — nearly four and a half times the level of last year at this time. But it’s also at the lowest level since mid-March, when, in the space of a single week, initial claims jumped from 14,154 to 130,000 as the first big pandemic-related layoffs began.
The new state data “is mildly encouraging and suggests that people were still being hired back from the shutdown period,” said state economist Paul Turek.
But Turek and other economists warn that claims could increase again if the recent rise in COVID-19 cases continues.
“There is a lot on the horizon that has me concerned,” said economist James McCafferty, a director at Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research, referring to such uncertainties as whether schools will reopen.
On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee recommended that most schools avoid in-classroom learning this fall.
McCafferty also cautioned against reading too much into a single week’s numbers, especially after more than two months in which weekly claims seemed stuck at or above 28,000. “The pattern here is more of a squiggle than a trend,” he said.
Like all states, Washington also continues to face uncertainties around whether Congress will extend the recently expired $600-a-week enhanced unemployment benefits and other pandemic stimulus.
Whether a squiggle or a trend, last week’s declines in jobless claims hit nearly all sectors of the state economy.
Previously hard-hit sectors, such as hotels, restaurants, health care, retail and construction, continued to lead in total numbers of new claims, but also showed some of the sharpest drops over the prior weeks.
One notable exception: manufacturing, where weekly claims climbed 2% to 2,018.
Since early July, Boeing, Alaska Airlines, United Airlines and several other players in the aerospace and airline sectors have announced thousands of layoffs. Hospitality and travel have also been hit hard.
Employer caution due to “the latest round of rising viral cases looks to have restrained some economic activity in recent weeks,” Turek said.
A continued increase in COVID-19 case counts “will make people feel less secure in venturing out, which will also impact the retail sector,” McCafferty said. “I think any gain we are seeing now won’t likely last for very long.”
For that reason, McCafferty is increasingly expecting a “W-shaped” recovery, that is, one that starts and stops, in contrast to a more optimistic “V-shaped” recovery. And maybe, he said, the state is facing “a series of Ws and not just one.”
But there are glimmers of more positive news.
Centerline Logistics, a Seattle-based marine petroleum shipper, said container shipments through Seattle and Tacoma in late July, though still 20% lower than a year ago, were up sharply over May and June.
Matt Godden, Centerline president and CEO, expects that recovery to continue as businesses begin to ramp up for the holiday season.
“We’re going into the seasonal period where you start seeing goods coming into the country for Christmas and the holidays,” he said. “We expect to see some growth in the near term with those shipments.”