The number of laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits declined last week, providing a slight break from a recent rise in layoffs.
The Labor Department reported that applications for jobless benefits totaled 328,000 last week, the lowest level in a month and down a better-than-expected 10,000 from the previous week.
However, the four-week average for claims rose to 339,000, the highest level since layoffs spiked in the fall of 2005. Layoffs have been increasing this year, reflecting weakness in such hard-hit industries as housing and auto manufacturing.
In other economic news, the nation's big retailers reported disappointing sales results for February as unseasonably cold weather put a damper on go-shopping moods.
Big chains with disappointing results included Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), Costco (COST) Wholesale Corp. and Limited Brands Inc. Meanwhile, high-end stores like Nordstrom Inc. continued their winning streak.
The February unemployment rate will be released Friday. Analysts are expecting the rate will remain unchanged at 4.6 percent, but that payroll growth will slow to 100,000.
Analysts expect the jobless rate will increase slightly this year around 5 percent, reflecting the slowdown that has occurred as the economy has felt the effects of a two-year campaign by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to combat inflation.
While the Fed is expected to be successful in its goal of achieving a "soft landing" in which inflation eases and the economy slows to a more sustainable pace, last week's turmoil on Wall Street and global stock markets have raised concerns that a more severe ourcome is possible.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has said that a recession this year is possible but not probable. But current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that the market turmoil had not altered the Fed's forecast for gradually improving economic growth this year.
The 328,000 applications for jobless benefits last week, after adjusting for normal seasonal variations, followed 338,000 applications for the previous week.
For the week of Feb. 24, 39 states and territories had declines in jobless applications while 14 had increases. The state data is not adjusted for seasonal changes.
The biggest increases in layoffs occurred in Massachusetts, a rise of 4,621, reflecting layoffs in transportation, and New Jersey, with an increase of 3,449, and Connecticut, where the increase was 2.992.
The biggest decline in layoffs occurred in California, down 4,380, reflecting fewer layoffs in construction and service industries, and Wisconsin, with a decline of 3,180, and Pennsylvania, with a decline of 2,790.