First-time claims for unemployment benefits fell to 793,000 last week, as the US labour market showed some modest signs of improvement as it attempts to rebound from the winter surge in coronavirus cases.

According to data released by the US labour department on Thursday, the number of jobless claims filed for regular state programmes dropped by 19,000 from the week prior. It was accompanied by a decrease of 34,400 in new applications for the federal pandemic assistance programme — which applies to gig workers and the self-employed — to 334,500.

The figures, which mean more than 1.1m Americans were still seeking jobless benefits for the first time last week, follow a warning from Jay Powell, Federal Reserve chair, on Wednesday that it would “not be easy” for the US economy to achieve full employment.

Roughly 10m fewer Americans are employed compared with one year ago, and more than 20m are still seeking jobless aid of some form.

In January, the US economy created a lacklustre 49,000 positions, after shedding jobs in December, but economists hope those figures will improve as states begin to lift winter restrictions on economic activity and coronavirus cases decline.

The four-week moving average of regular state-level unemployment claims dropped to 823,000 last week. It remains far from the figure of just above 200,000 posted one year ago before the pandemic hit.

“Additional fiscal stimulus and broader vaccine diffusion will eventually allow the labour market to heal, but as the January employment data showed, current conditions are still quite weak and declines in new jobless claims are likely to occur only gradually in the near term,” wrote Nancy Vanden Houten, lead US economist at Oxford Economics, in a note.

The gradual improvement in unemployment comes as Congress debates a new $1.9tn economic stimulus plan being pushed by Joe Biden, the US president. The package includes an extension of emergency jobless benefits introduced at the start of the pandemic, which are due to expire in March.

Biden initially sought talks with some Republicans who wanted to shorten the duration of an unemployment benefit extension and reduce the value of the payments. However, Democrats will probably pass the bill without Republican support, so a lengthier and more fulsome extension is more likely.

Still, there is uncertainty over the details and timing for passage of Biden’s stimulus legislation, which has triggered some nervousness among economists and activists who support the extension of further unemployment assistance.

“The question now is whether Congress looks carefully at the lagging claims numbers and passes an extension of unemployment benefits soon enough to avoid another plagued rollout of aid,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think-tank.