The job market: slowly getting less bad

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For the fifth week in a row, the number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits has dropped, according to the Labor Department. The number of initial claims came in at 457,000 for the week ending Nov. 28. That’s the lowest level since September 2008. (The data are seasonally adjusted, which tries to account for differences such as Thanksgiving having been on Thursday.)

The four-week average of new claims—intended to smooth out distortions from one-time events like bad weather—also fell, to 481,250, its lowest point in 13 months.

So that’s good news on one front: employers seem to be firing less. Of course, hiring is a different matter.

Continuing claims—which capture how frequently people are leaving the ranks of the unemployed—are still edging up, to a seasonally adjusted 5.47 million for the week ending Nov. 21. The four-week average is down a bit, though that is driven in part by workers maxing out their normal unemployment benefits and moving onto state or federal extensions, which aren’t captured in that figure but include more than 4 million additional people.

Tomorrow we get payroll data, the hiring side of the equation. Chances are those numbers will underscore the story painted by the jobless claims data: employers are letting fewer people go but aren’t bringing new folks on board (which would account for all the jobs stimulus talk).

You can also see that narrative play out in the Labor Department’s new figures on U.S. worker productivity, as those of us with jobs continue to do the work of our laid-off colleagues. For the third quarter, productivity rose at an annualized rate of 8.1%—the fastest rise in six years.

Update: Justin writes about the new payroll data and unemployment rate.