Good Job News: Unemployment Claims Down, Sales and Productivity Up


Last week the number of people filing for unemployment benefits was actually lower than it was the week before, which is a sign that layoffs could be slowing. In the week ending Feb. 27, initial claims numbered 469,000, a decrease of 29,000 from the previous week's 498,000, according to numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are also fewer people receiving unemployment benefits last week. The current number is 4,500,000, a decrease of 134,000 from the preceding week's 4,634,000. But that doesn't mean 134,000 people found full time jobs. It's unknown how many exhausted their benefits and dropped off the list, or took part time jobs that made them ineligible.

Meanwhile, in February U.S. retailers posted their best monthly sales numbers since before the start of the recession in December 2007. Stores from Nordstrom to Macy's to Target reported stronger than expected sales, even though consumer confidence levels are low. Spring sales and savvy promotions seem to have attracted shoppers back to the stores, which could be good news for job seekers.

That could be one of the reasons several states actually had decreases in new unemployment benefits claims than the week before. California had 12,000 fewer new claims, North Carolina had 7,981 fewer, Florida's new claims were down by 2,564, Michigan's down by -2,484, and Ohio's were off by 2,130.

Still, that's no comfort for those living in the states with the highest insured unemployment rates last week. Those states include Alaska (7.4 percent), Oregon (6.4), Pennsylvania (6.4), Idaho (6.3), Montana (6.3), Wisconsin (6.2), Puerto Rico (6.1), Michigan (5.8), Nevada (5.7), and North Carolina (5.4). New Jersey had the largest increases in initial claims last week, with 4,879 new claims. Next came Massachusetts with 4,744 new claims, Connecticut with 2,018, Missouri with 1,920 and Maryland with 1,499.

Increases in productivity numbers are a mixed bag. When those numbers go up, it means that manufacturers are finding ways to produce more with fewer employees. The Department of Labor reports that productivity rose by 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter, higher than analysts' expectations of a 6.3 percent rise. "Productivity" is measured by the output per hour worked. It means US companies are becoming more efficient. This is both good and bad. If employers can get more out of the workers already on their payrolls, they're less likely to hire new ones. However, if manufacturing becomes more efficient in the US, employers will be less likely to outsource jobs overseas.

Those looking for positive signs that the economy might be recovering will savor the fact that last week, at least, fewer people filed for unemployment benefits than they had in the preceding weeks. It ain't much, but it's something.