WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits surged 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 329,000 last week, though the gain likely reflected temporary layoffs in the week before Easter.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average of applications, a less volatile number, rose 4,750 to 316,750. The four-week average fell two weeks ago to its lowest level since October 2007, two months before the recession began.
Applications can be volatile around Easter, because many school systems temporarily lay off bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other employees during spring break. Some of those workers file for unemployment benefits. Because the timing of Easter shifts each year, it can be difficult for the government to seasonally adjust for the holiday. Last year, Easter fell on March 30, this year on April 20.
"The underlying trend in claims is falling, albeit slowly," said Ian Shepherdson, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. "When the economy picks up, companies hold back on firings before they start increasing hiring, so a sustained drop in claims would be a clearly positive sign" for hiring.
Despite the volatility, applications for unemployment benefits have generally declined in recent months, a hopeful sign for the job market. Three weeks ago, they fell to 301,000, the lowest level in nearly seven years.
A year ago, they stood at 343,000. Because applications are a proxy for layoffs, the low level is a sign that employers expect consumer demand to continue and are holding onto their workers.