WASHINGTON — Fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week following three straight increases economists blamed on the surge in cases caused by the omicron variant of COVID-19.

U.S. jobless claims fell by 30,000 to 260,000 last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, less than the 265,000 analysts were expecting.

The four-week average of claims, which compensates for weekly volatility, rose by 15,000 to 247,000.

In Maine, initial jobless claims fell significantly to 900 from 1,200 claims the previous week. Continuing weekly claims held steady from the previous week at roughly 8,000 in the state.

Nationwide, nearly 1.7 million people were collecting jobless aid the week that ended Jan. 15, a nominal increase of 51,000 from the previous week.

A recent surge in COVID-19 cases has set back what had been a strong comeback from last year’s short but devastating coronavirus recession. Jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, had fallen mostly steadily for about a year and late last year dipped below the pre-pandemic average of around 220,000 a week. Economists expect claims to return to those lower levels as the virus fades.


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