Jobless Claims Rise to Highest Level in Two Months

The number of Americans seeking initial jobless benefits rose to the highest level in more than two months, the government said Thursday, underscoring the sluggishness in the labor market.

The Labor Department said first-time jobless claims, a guide to the job market and the pace of layoffs, rose for the second straight week, rising to 417,000 for the week ended Feb. 22 from a revised 406,000 the week before and its highest since 438,000 in the week ended Dec. 14, 2002. Wall Street economists had forecast new claims of 386,000 for the latest week.

The department originally reported the number of new applications for state jobless benefits at 402,000 in the Feb. 15 week.

The massive snowstorm that ravaged the East Coast from the mid-Atlantic region to New England appeared to have had no effect on the initial claims data, the department said. Nearly all the states were able to report their actual claims activity, the department said.

A more reliable barometer of employment market trends, the closely watched four-week moving average reached 399,750 in the Feb. 22 week, up from 395,750 in the prior week.

Economists view the four-week average as a better gauge of labor market trends because it irons out weekly fluctuations caused by holidays and seasonal factors.

The number of workers continuing to file for benefits fell to 3.38 million in the week ended Feb. 15, the latest week that data is available, from a revised 3.42 million the previous week.

In a preliminary poll by Reuters, analysts said they expected unemployment rate for February to rise to 5.8 percent from 5.7 percent in January. The Labor Department will release its employment report on March 7, and it is expected show the economy created only 24,000 new jobs outside the farm sector. In February payroll jobs rose 143,000.

In a separate report from the Commerce Department, new orders for durable goods -- those meant to last three or more years -- advanced 3.3 percent in January, a stronger showing than Wall Street analysts had expected.