WASHINGTON -- The number of people requesting first-time unemployment benefits dropped slightly last week, but remained near a 26-year high as companies lay off thousands of workers amid a deepening recession.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the number of initial jobless benefit claims dropped to a seasonally-adjusted 623,000, from an upwardly revised figure of 631,000 the previous week. The latest tally still was above analysts' expectations of 610,00 claims.
The 631,000 figure was the highest number of new jobless claims since October 1982, when the economy was emerging from a steep recession, though the labor force has grown by about half since then.
The four-week average of claims, which smooths out fluctuations, rose by 24,000 to 607,500, the first time that figure has topped 600,000 in the current recession.
In a sign that laid-off workers are having difficulty finding new work, the number of people claiming benefits for more than one week rose to 4.81 million from 4.78 million, the highest total since records began in 1967. The continuing claims data lags the new claims numbers by one week.
Economists consider jobless claims a timely, if volatile, indicator of the health of the labor markets and broader economy. A year ago, initial claims stood at 339,000.
Companies from a range of sectors are hemorrhaging jobs as the recession worsens. Consumers have cut back on their spending in response to declining home values and plummeting stock portfolios, and businesses also are tightening their belts.
On Wednesday, Boston-based money manager Putnam Investments said it would cut 260 jobs, or about 10 percent of its work force.
A day earlier, General Motors said it would cut 10,000 salaried jobs, or 14 percent of its white-collar employees. FedEx Corp. said Monday it is eliminating 900 positions.