First-time claims for U.S. unemployment compensation unexpectedly increased again last week but remained near the low point during the 18-month coronavirus pandemic, the Labor Department reported Thursday.


A total of 351,000 jobless workers filed for assistance, up 16,000 from the revised figure of the week before, the second straight week the figure moved higher. The increase was at odds with projections of economists, who had predicted a declining number.


Still, the claims figures for the last month have been on the whole the lowest since the pandemic swept through the U.S. in March 2020, although they remain above the 218,000 average in 2019.


The jobless claims total has fallen steadily but unevenly since topping 900,000 in early January. Filings for unemployment compensation have often been seen as a current reading of the country’s economic health, but other statistics also are relevant barometers.


Even as the U.S. said last month that its world-leading economy grew at an annualized rate of 6.6% in the April-to-June period, it added only a disappointing 235,000 more jobs in August, a figure economists said was partly reflective of the surging Delta variant of the coronavirus inhibiting job growth.


The number of new jobs was down sharply from the more than 2 million combined figure added in June and July. The unemployment rate dipped to 5.2%, which is still nearly two percentage points higher than before the pandemic started in March 2020.


About 8.7 million workers remain unemployed in the U.S. There are nearly 11 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.


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, on Wednesday signaled that in November it could start reversing its pandemic stimulus programs and next year could begin to increase its benchmark interest rate.


How fast the U.S. economy will continue to grow is unclear.


For months, the national government had sent an extra $300 a week in unemployment compensation, on top of often less generous state aid, to jobless workers. But that extra assistance ended earlier this month, with about 7.5 million jobless workers affected by the cutoff in extra funding.


The delta variant of the coronavirus also poses a new threat to the economy.  

Political disputes have erupted in numerous states between conservative Republican governors who have resisted imposing mandatory face mask and vaccination rules in their states at schools and businesses, although some education and municipal leaders are advocating tougher rules to try to prevent the spread of the Delta variant.


U.S. President Joe 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.


In recent weeks, about 150,000 new cases have been identified each day in the U.S. and more than 2,000 people are dying from COVID-19 every day.    


More than 66% of U.S. adults now have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and overall, 54.9% of the U.S. population of 332 million have completed their shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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