The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits jumped by 25,000 to 304,000 in the first week of February, topping the 300,000 mark for the fourth time in the past six weeks. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to rise to a seasonally adjusted 296,000. Initial claims are still on the low side after a rapid pickup in hiring, but they appear to have leveled off after an extended decline. The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, fell by 3,250 to 289,750, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average smooths out sharp fluctuations in the more volatile weekly report and is seen as a more accurate predictor of labor-market trends. Also, the government said continuing claims decreased by 51,000 to a seasonally adjusted 2.35 million in the week ended Jan 31. Continuing claims reflect the number of people already receiving benefits. Initial claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 279,000 from 278,000.
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