The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits ticked higher last week, hitting the highest level in nine months – the latest sign that the historically tight labor market is starting to cool off.
Figures released Thursday by the Labor Department show that applications for the week ended Aug. 6 rose to 262,000 from the downwardly revised 248,000 recorded a week earlier. That is above the 2019 pre-pandemic average of 218,000 claims and marks the highest level since mid-November.
Continuing claims, or the number of Americans who are consecutively receiving unemployment aid, rose slightly to 1.428 million for the week ended July 30, up by 8,000 from the previous week's revised level. One year ago, nearly 12.96 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits.
For months, the labor market has been one of the few bright spots in the economy, with the July jobs report showing that the unemployment rate fell to 3.5% – the lowest level since February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down a broad swath of the U.S. economy. Employers, meanwhile, added a stunning 528,000 jobs, nearly double what economists expected.
However, there are signs that the labor market is starting to weaken, with a plethora of companies, including Alphabet's Google, Walmart, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, announcing hiring freezes or layoffs in recent weeks.
"A rising risk to the market outlook is the upward trend in individuals claiming unemployment benefits," said Jeffrey Roach, chief economist for LPL Financial. "Initial claims and continuing claims have inched higher for the last four months and suggest that the labor market will likely slow further throughout the back half of this year."
There are growing fears that the U.S. economy is on the cusp of – or already in – a recession as a result of the Federal Reserve's war on inflation. The central bank is raising interest rates at the fastest pace in decades as it races to cool consumer prices, which climbed 8.5% in July – a big decline from June but still near a mutli-decades high.
Policymakers approved another mega-sized, 75-basis point rate hike – triple the usual size – at their meeting in July and have since signaled they are "nowhere near" ending this tightening cycle, despite signs of a slowdown in the economy.