WASHINGTON — New applications for jobless benefits rose by 25,000 to 410,000 last week, reflecting choppy conditions in a still-tepid U.S. labor market.
The number of new applications for unemployment compensation has jumped around over the past few months, ranging from 385,000 to 454,000, partly because poor weather and frequent holidays have caused paperwork delays at state unemployment offices.
Still, claims have been on a downward arc since topping the 500,000 mark last August, suggesting some improvement in employment trends. The national unemployment rate remains elevated at 9.0 percent, however.
Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected initial claims in the week ended Feb. 12 to rise to a seasonally adjusted 400,000. Last week's claims were revised up by 2,000 to 385,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
The four-week average of new claims rose a scant 1,750 to 417,750. The moving average is considered a more accurate barometer of employment trends because it smoothes out fluctuations in the data caused by special factors such as holidays or bad weather.
When the U.S. creates lots of new jobs, applications for jobless benefits typically fall below 400,000 for a sustained period. So far, faster job growth is not evident in monthly employment data.
The number of new jobs created over the past three months, for instance, has averaged 83,000, but that's far less than what's required to absorb just the natural growth in the working population.
Some economists say the link between jobless claims and employment growth might not be as strong now as it has been in the past. Yet others believe the decline in claims signals faster payroll growth in the months ahead, "and we do not expect to have to wait very long to see it," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist of High Frequency Economics.
The U.S. had to add at least 125,000 jobs a month to keep up with growth in the labor force. Companies would have to hire at double that level or faster each month to quickly drive down the jobless rate.
Meanwhile, continuing claims increased by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 3.91 million. That category reflects the number of people who were already receiving unemployment compensation.
An additional 4.5 million Americans received extended federal benefits in the week ended Jan. 29, down 85,000 from the prior week. These special benefits are granted to the long-term unemployed in the states hardest hit by the 2007-2009 recession.
About 9.25 million Americans were getting some kind of state or federal benefit in the week ended Jan 29 on an unadjusted basis. That was down 108,468 from the prior week.
More than 8 million Americans lost their jobs at the height of the downturn.