WASHINGTON – The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose 5,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 320,000, which is close to pre-recession levels and suggests a stable job market.
The four-week average of applications, a less volatile figure, fell 3,500 to 327,000, the lowest since late November, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Applications are a rough proxy for layoffs. Their current pace suggests that companies are confident enough about economic growth to keep their staff levels.
About 3.35 million people received unemployment benefits as of March 1, the latest figures available. That's about 101,000 fewer than the previous week.
Jobless claims at their current levels are historically consistent with monthly job growth of roughly 200,000, said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR.
Hiring accelerated in February after two months of meager jobs gains. Cold winter weather in January and December limited consumer spending, home buying, and, consequently, economic growth. Employers added 175,000 jobs last month, up from 129,000 in January and close to the monthly average of the past two years, the Labor Department reported recently.
The unemployment rate rose to 6.7 percent. But the tenth of a percentage point increase resulted, in part, because more people began looking for work and entered the job market. Employers didn't immediately hire most of them, causing the unemployment rate to increase. But the fact that they started job hunting suggests they were optimistic about their prospects.
Employers advertised more jobs in January, a separate government report said earlier this week, suggesting that hiring will likely remain steady in the coming months.
The weather did force about 6 million people with full-time jobs to work part-time in February. Many of their paychecks will shrink, likely weighing on spending.
That has contributed to economists forecasting that economic growth will be at an annual rate of 2 percent or less in the first three months of this year, down from 2.4 percent in the final three months of last year. But as the weather improves, most analysts expect growth to rebound to an annual rate near 3 percent.