Job openings rise, layoffs fall as pandemic economy mends

WASHINGTON — Companies posted more open jobs in January while layoffs decreased as the economy heals slowly from the pandemic.

There were 6.9 million jobs available on the last day in January, up from 6.7 million in December, the Labor Department said today. That suggests employers are getting ready to hire in the coming months.

Hiring actually began to pick up in February, according to last Friday’s jobs report, which showed that employers added 379,000 jobs, the most since October, while the unemployment rate fell to 6.2%, from 6.3%. While the economy still has 9.5 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic, February’s job gain was much higher than January’s and came after a sharp job loss in December, suggesting the economy, after stalling out late last year, is mending.

Thursday’s report tracks gross job gains and losses, while last week’s figure is a net change in total jobs. The data released Thursday also showed that layoffs fell to just under 1.7 million in January, the same pace of job cuts that was occurring before the pandemic.

Those data contrast with the number of people seeking unemployment benefits, which fell last week but remain at a very elevated level of 712,000, according to a separate report today. That suggests an unusually high number of Americans are still losing jobs. The figures may vary for several reasons. The government has broadened the eligibility for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, for example by allowing those who have refused to take jobs they felt were unsafe to claim aid.

Many recipients of unemployment aid also report having to apply multiple times to get through overwhelmed state systems, potentially lifting the number of jobless claims.