The number of U.S. workers on the unemployment benefit rolls hit the highest level in almost four years early this month and 372,000 more workers applied for aid last week, the government said on Thursday.
The number of new claims for jobless benefits climbed by 17,000 to 372,000 in the week ended April 12, the Labor Department said, slightly less than analysts' forecasts of 375,000 in a Reuters poll.
The four-week average of new claims, considered a more reliable guide to underlying labor market trends because it smooths out weekly data fluctuation, moderated slightly to 376,000 from a revised 376,750 in the previous week. But the figure was the highest since a big jump in claims after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in the fall of 2005.
In another sign of strains in the labor market, the number of workers remaining on jobless benefits rose to 2.98 million in the week ended April 5, which was the most recent data available and the highest since June 2004.
Analysts were expecting continuing claims to ease to 2.93 million from the previously reported 2.94 million.
Financial markets, though, were focused more on corporate news since the jobless claims data, while gloomy, contained no surprises.
Analysts said the report was consistent with a weak job market and confirmed forecasts of difficult times ahead for the U.S. economy.
"Labor conditions are quite difficult," said Michelle Meyer, an economist with Lehman Brothers in New York.
"It's another headwind consumers are facing. Consumer sentiments are very low already and in recession territory," she said.