The number of Americans lining up to file for first-time unemployment benefits climbed by 7,000 during the week ended Dec. 22, reversing three straight weeks of declining claims in a sign the labor market remains soft, a government report showed on Friday. 

Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose to 392,000 in the week ended Dec. 22, the Labor Department said, up from a revised 385,000 the prior week. 

Wall Street economists had forecast even larger claims of 401,000 for the latest week. 

With the U.S. economy in recession since last March, the weekly claims data are receiving special scrutiny for any signs that declines in employment might be starting to level off. 

While the data from Dec. 22 show more people seeking benefits, weekly claims at least were running below the 400,000 mark for a third week in a row, after hitting levels above 500,000 a week in October in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks which caused a sharp falloff in employment. 

About 1.2 million people have lost their jobs since a recession began in March, ending a record decade-long expansion. The majority of the job losses have occurred in the weeks since the Sept. 11 attacks. 

The four-week moving average of jobless claims -- considered useful as barometer since it smoothes out weekly variations -- fell to 413,250 in the week ended Dec. 22 from 438,500 in the Dec. 15 week. It was the third straight week in which this claims measure posted a decline. 

The number of workers continuing to receive unemployment checks was up modestly to 3,700,000 in the latest week from 3,677,000 during the Dec. 15 week. The insured unemployment rate -- a measure of the portion of the nation's workforce that is receiving jobless benefits -- was unchanged at 2.9 percent.