More people applied for unemployment benefits last week, the first increase in three weeks. Still, the broader trend points to a slowly healing jobs market.
The government says applications for unemployment benefits rose 27,000 to a seasonally adjusted 412,000 for the week ended April 9. That left applications at their highest point since mid-February.
Applications near 375,000 are consistent with a sustained increase in hiring. Applications peaked during the recession at 659,000.
The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, rose to 395,750. However, applications have dropped about 6 percent over the past two months. At the same time, businesses have stepped up hiring.
"The picture we still get — even with this one-week pop — is that the labor market is getting better," said economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors. "The unemployment claims trend over an extended period of time is positive."
Companies added more than 200,000 jobs in March for the second straight month, the first time that has happened since 2006. The unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 8.8 percent and has dropped a full percentage point since November.
However, a more sobering reason for the drop is that the number of people who are either working or seeking a job is surprisingly low for this stage of the recovery. People without jobs who aren't looking for one aren't counted as unemployed. Once they start looking again, they're classified as unemployed, and the unemployment rate can go back up.
The number of people collecting benefits fell to 3.68 million during the week ending April 2, one week behind the applications data. That's the lowest total since late September 2008.
But that doesn't include millions of people receiving aid under the emergency unemployment benefits programs put in place during the recession.
Overall, 8.5 million people received unemployment benefits in the week ending March 26, the latest data available. That's down slightly from the previous week.
Applications for unemployment benefits could rise further in the coming weeks due to disruptions from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Toyota said last week that it will probably be forced to temporarily shut down all of its North American factories. Nissan and Ford Motor Co. have said several North American plants would be closed for some of April.
Businesses in February posted the largest number of job openings in more than two years, evidence that hiring is picking up. Employers advertised 3.1 million available jobs that month, the most since September 2008, the government reported Wednesday.
Google Inc, electronics store hhgregg Inc. and Kohl's Corp. are among the companies that have announced plans in recent weeks to increase hiring.
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