The number of newly laid off people signing up for unemployment benefits rose sharply for the second straight week, suggesting that jobs are still hard to come by even as the economic recovery gains traction.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that first-time requests for jobless benefits rose by 24,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 484,000, the highest level since late February. Economists had predicted claims would fall.
It marked the second week that claims took an unexpected leap. In the prior week, claims rose by 18,000 to 460,000.
A government analyst, however, cautioned against reading too much into both weeks' figures, saying they were clouded by seasonal adjustment difficulties related to the Easter holiday, which falls on different weeks each year.
Even with the increases over the last two weeks, the trend in claims have been slowly drifting downward. Fewer people overall have been seeking unemployment insurance as the job market recovers.
For instance, for the same week a year ago, first-time claims totaled 609,000, compared with the current 484,000. Applications for jobless claims peaked during the recession at 651,000 in late March 2009.
Economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, was still disappointed with the latest figures. He had hoped that claims would be much lower by now — in the range of 400,000 to 425,000.
"What this tells me is that the labor market isn't necessarily deteriorating further, but it is not improving at the pace we hoped it would," Naroff said.
Another report out Thursday showed that factory production accelerated in March, rising a strong 0.9 percent, the Federal Resereve reported. That was an improvement from the 0.2 percent increase logged in February, when snowstorms hit the East Coast and restrained production.
Overall industrial activity, which also inclues mines and gas and electric utilities edged up 0.1 percent. That figure was held back by a sharp drop in utility use as warmer spring weather cut demand for heating.
In the layoff report, the four-week moving average of claims, which smooths out weekly volatility, also moved up. They grew by 7,500 to 457,750 last week, the highest since mid-March.
The number of people continuing to draw unemployment benefits moved higher. They rose to 4.64 million, from 4.57 million.
That figure lags the initial claims by one week. It doesn't include millions of people who have used up the regular 26 weeks of benefits typically provided by states, and are receiving extended benefits for up to 73 additional weeks, paid for by the federal government.
Approximately 5.97 million people were receiving extended benefits in the week ended March 27, the latest data available.
On Capitol Hill, a bill restoring jobless benefits to people struggling to find work is back on track in the Senate. The $18 billion measure could pass Thursday and prevent even more people whose 26 weeks of state-paid benefits have run out from losing an average of $335 a week in federally funded benefits.
With the economy on the mend from the worst recession since the 1930s, employers are starting to add to their payrolls again.
Employers in March added 162,000 jobs, the most in three years. But the pace of the economic recovery and job creation won't be robust enough to quickly drive down the unemployment rate. It's been stuck at 9.7 percent for three months, close to its highest levels since the 1980s. And, competition for the jobs that do become available is fierce.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress on Wednesday that he's more optimitic that the economic recovery will be lasting. But he warned that it will take a long time to recover the 8 million-plus jobs lost during the recession.
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