Claims for unemployment insurance unexpectedly rose last week, climbing past the psychologically important 400,000 mark as the jobs market showed signs of more weakness.
Weekly applications for unemployment benefits rose 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 402,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Applications had been below 400,000 for three straight weeks.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, was mostly unchanged at slightly below 400,000.
The average fell to a seven-month low two weeks ago. Weekly applications had been declining for two months.
Applications would need to stay below 375,000 consistently to push down the unemployment rate significantly. They haven't been at that level since February.
The report comes one day before the government reports on job growth in November. Economists project that employers added a net 125,000 jobs, while the unemployment rate stayed at 9 percent for the second straight month.
While the job growth would be an improvement from October, when the economy added just 80,000 jobs, it's still barely enough to keep pace with population growth.
Some economists are more optimistic after payroll provider ADP said Wednesday that companies added 206,000 workers last month, the most this year. That survey doesn't include government agencies, which have been cutting jobs.
Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said he now expects the government to say employers added 140,000 net jobs last month.
Recent data suggest the economy is picking up. Retailers reported a strong start to holiday sales over the Thanksgiving weekend, consumer confidence surged in November to the highest level since July and Americans' pay rose in October by the most in seven months.
Many economists say that is driving stronger growth in the final three months of the year. They forecast a 3 percent annual rate for the October-December quarter. That would be an improvement from the 2 percent rate in the July-September quarter.
But the outlook is darker in Europe, which is struggling to contain its two-year old debt crisis and is on the verge of another recession.
Europe's problems led the Federal Reserve and other major central banks on Wednesday to take steps to ease the strain on global financial markets. They made it easier for banks in Europe and elsewhere to obtain dollars to fund more loans. That could support economic growth by making it easier for banks to lend to each other and to businesses.
Most economists expect Europe to slip into recession soon. That would cool demand for U.S. exports and slow growth next year.