Applications for US unemployment benefits likely rose slightly last week

Economic Indicators Associated Press

The U.S. Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits last week. The report will be released Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern.

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ALMOST FLAT: Economists forecast that weekly applications rose a slight 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 290,000, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet. Freezing weather and snowstorms recently pushed up the number of people seeking benefits. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, has fallen 9 percent over the past year to 302,500.

Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. When employers keep their workers, it is generally a sign that they expect continued economic growth and will likely increase hiring. Applications below 300,000 are typically consistent with healthy job gains.

JOB GROWTH: The historically low level of benefit applications has been matched by a surge in hiring. Employers have added an average of 288,000 jobs a month since December, including a net new 295,000 jobs in February. The gains have cut the unemployment rate to 5.5 percent from 6.7 percent a year ago.

Despite the job growth, other parts of the economy have stumbled during February's harsh snowstorms. Retail sales, housing starts and factory output each dropped last month, a sign of either a temporary setback due to an unseasonably cold February or evidence that the additional paychecks generated by the recent hiring has done little to improve consumer spending.

Average hourly wages have climbed just 2 percent over the past 12 months.