WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell last week for a fourth straight time to a pandemic low, the latest sign that America’s job market is rebounding from the pandemic recession as employers boost hiring to meet a surge in consumer demand.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that jobless claims fell by 29,000 to 348,000.

The weekly pace of applications for unemployment aid has fallen more or less steadily since topping 900,000 in early January. The dwindling number of first-time jobless claims has coincided with the widespread administering of vaccines, which has led businesses to reopen or expand their hours and drawn consumers back to shops, restaurants, airports and entertainment venues.

Still, the number of applications remains high by historic standards: Before the pandemic tore through the economy in March 2020, the weekly pace amounted to around 220,000 a week. And now there is growing concern that the highly contagious delta variant could disrupt the economy’s recovery from last year’s brief but intense recession. Some economists have already begun to mark down their estimates for growth this quarter as some measures of economic activity, like air travel, have started to weaken.

Filings for unemployment benefits have traditionally been seen as a real-time measure of the job market’s health. But their reliability has deteriorated during the pandemic. In many states, the weekly figures have been inflated by fraud and by multiple filings from unemployed Americans as they navigate bureaucratic hurdles to try to obtain benefits. Those complications help explain why the pace of applications remains comparatively high.

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