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The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to a new low last week as the pandemic raged, in evidence that layoffs are dwindling as companies hold on to workers.

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The Labor Department said Thursday that unemployment claims fell to 290,000 from 6,000 last week, the third consecutive drop. This is the fewest people applying for benefits since March 14, 2020, when the pandemic intensified. Applications for jobless aid, which typically track the pace of layoffs, have fallen steadily from nearly 900,000 in January.

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Unemployment claims are becoming increasingly common, but many other aspects of the job market have yet to do so. Hiring has slowed over the past two months, even as companies and other employers have posted nearly record numbers of open jobs. Officials such as Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell expected more people to find work in September as schools reopen, barriers to childcare ease and unemployment aid increased across the country.

related: US unemployment claims fall to lowest level in COVID-19 pandemic

Yet so far this has not happened. Instead, some observers are starting to consider whether some of those who worked and lost their jobs before the pandemic have stopped looking for work permanently.

Photograph of a Help Wanted sign along Middle Country Road in Selden on July 20, 2021. (Photo by Thomas A. Ferrara / Newsday RM via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Christopher Waller, a member of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, said that two million of the 22 million jobs lost by the pandemic may not come back any time soon because retirement has accelerated so much since COVID-19 hit .

Thursday’s report from the Labor Department also showed the number of people receiving jobless aid continued to decline. In the week of October 2, the latest available figures, 3.3 million people received unemployment benefits, down from 3.6 million in the previous week.

A year ago, about 24 million people were receiving unemployment assistance.

Nearly 7 million people lost jobless benefits in September after two emergency programs established in March 2020 ended. One of the programs provided assistance to gig workers and the self-employed, who traditionally have not been eligible to receive unemployment insurance, and the other covered workers who have been unemployed for more than six months. And an additional $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits nationwide ended September 6.