WASHINGTON - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits, after having fallen to the lowest level in four years, shot up last week by the biggest amount since late 2002. The new report dealt a setback to hopes that the economy is finally beginning to produce a sustained recovery in jobs.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits jumped by 30,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted level of 360,000.
The increase was far above the rise of 7,000 that economists had been expecting, but analysts cautioned against reading too much into a single week's change in the volatile series. Labor Department analysts noted that the period covered was the first week in a new quarter, a time when the jobless claims can be even more volatile.
The four-week moving average for new claims, viewed as a better gauge of trends because it smooths out some of the volatility, was up by a smaller 6,750 to 344,250, the highest level since early March.
Economists are hoping that the strong economic growth that began last summer will finally convince businesses to begin rehiring laid-off workers, something that President Bush and other incumbents running for re-election are also hoping to see as evidence that the nation's long jobs slump is finally coming to an end.
The biggest sign yet that the labor market has finally turned the corner was the news that 308,000 payroll jobs were created last month, the biggest gain in four years.
Even with that increase, the nation's unemployment rate rose by a tenth of a point to 5.7 percent as the improving jobs picture encouraged people who had dropped out of the labor market to come back and resume looking for work.
The 330,000 Americans who filed for jobless benefits last week represented the largest number since early February.
The increase of 30,000, after a decline of 13,000 the week before, was the biggest one-week jump since a rise of 42,000 in the week of Dec. 7, 2002, a time when the economy was still struggling to rebound from the 2001 recession.
The rise in unemployment claims came as economists were beginning to worry that signs of a strengthening economy and a worrisome inflation report might prompt the Federal Reserve to begin raising interest rates to slow things down beginning as early as this summer.
Before Wednesday's report that consumer prices had jumped by 0.5 percent in March, many analysts believed the central bank might be content to keep rates on hold at a 45-year low of 1 percent until after the November presidential election.