Job seekers wait to enter a January career fair sponsored by National Career… (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg )
Washington — New applications for unemployment benefits rose to the highest level in five weeks, but they remained in a range usually associated with better labor market conditions, government data showed Thursday.
Initial claims climbed 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000 in the week ended March 3, the Labor Department said. Claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 354,000 from 351,000.
The level of claims is an indicator of whether layoffs are rising or falling. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had estimated that claims would rise to 355,000 for last week.
The four-week average of claims, meanwhile, was virtually unchanged at 355,000, which is near a four-year low. The monthly average provides a more accurate view of labor market trends by reducing week-to-week gyrations caused by seasonal quirks.
Hiring usually picks up when applications for jobless benefits drop below 400,000, based on long-standing patterns. New applications for jobless benefits have fallen under that mark in 16 of the last 18 weeks, correlating with an increase in net U.S. job growth over that span.
"The trend for jobless claims has been a steady decline, which suggests the pace of hiring will continue to improve," economist Yelena Shulyatyeva of BNP Paribas said.
The jobs report for February, to be issued Friday, is expected to show a 213,000 net increase in U.S. hiring last month. The economy added 243,000 jobs in the initial report for January, though that number will be revised. A 200,000-plus gain in February would be in keeping with recent trends.
Although companies have stepped up hiring, the U.S. has a long way to go to repair the damage from the deep 2007-09 recession. Nearly 6 million jobs that were lost during the downturn have not returned, and the unemployment rate is still high, at 8.3%.
At the current rate of hiring, the jobless rate would not return to pre-recession levels of around 5% to 6% for at least three to four years.
Bartash writes for MarketWatch.com/McClatchy.