Initial unemployment claims in the U.S. surged to a three-month high, an ominous sign of Omicron’s toll on the labor market in the last month. 

The Department of Labor said Thursday that 286,000 initial unemployment claims were reported in the week ending Jan. 15. This compared to 231,000 claims in the previous week.

The new figure - the highest since the week ending Oct. 16, 2021 - was above estimates, soaring 66,000 claims higher than the 220,000 that was projected by forecasters. 

The numbers remain low compared to those seen at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have been on the upswing since the Omicron variant emerged. A sharp rise in initial unemployment claims and recent poor job numbers also suggest emerging sluggishness in job growth. Labor force participation remains below pre-pandemic levels.  

On Jan. 7, the Labor Department's nonfarm payrolls report found that only 199,000 jobs were added in December last year. The Biden administration brushed off these numbers by insisting that more Americans were moving to better-paying jobs in other parts of the economy rather than giving up on joining the workforce.