Initial weekly jobless claims fell to 684,000 last week, the lowest weekly total since the pandemic began, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Labor.
It's the first time since last March that claims for first-time unemployment have fallen below the 700,000 mark, and roundly beats economist expectations for 735,000 for the week ending March 20, 2021.
Continuing claims, which log ongoing benefits, fell to 3.87 million, down by 264,000. Total claims are still more than four times their pre-pandemic level.
"Things have improved over the last year, but there are still millions of people dealing with real economic pain," said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. "Increased vaccinations are hopefully the beginning of the end. Once the public health situation is improved, a full recovery can finally take place."
Policymakers have been closely watching employment data for signs that the economy is improving, as the number of vaccinations increases, restrictive measures on businesses are lifted in many states, and money from President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion emergency stimulus package begins to circulate.
Biden said last week that the United States will reach his goal of administering 100 million coronavirus vaccination shots ahead of schedule, hitting the milestone as 100 million stimulus checks go out.
But, while fewer people are losing their job, economic pain persists for millions of people.
"About 19 million Americans are on some form of unemployment assistance. True healing will take many more months to come," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.