An unexpected jolt in people applying for unemployment benefits last week raised the number of applications to a seasonally adjusted 412,000.
It was the first increase in three weeks, and could be a sign that people who stopped looking for work are coming back, but the 27,000 additional requests for assistance for the week ending April 9 put the jobless aid figure at its highest point since mid-February.
Applications near 375,000 are consistent with a sustained increase in hiring. Applications peaked during the recession at 659,000.
The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, rose to 395,750. Applications have dropped by about 6 percent over the past two months.
Companies added more than 200,000 jobs in March for the second straight month, the first time that has happened since 2006. The unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 8.8 percent and has dropped a full percentage point since November.
However, a more sobering reason for the drop is that the number of people who are either working or seeking a job is surprisingly low for this stage of the recovery. People without jobs who aren't looking for one aren't counted as unemployed. Once they start looking again, they're classified as unemployed, and the unemployment rate can go back up.
The number of people collecting benefits fell to 3.68 million during the week ending April 2, one week behind the applications data. That's the lowest total since late September 2008.
But that doesn't include millions of people receiving aid under the emergency unemployment benefits programs put in place during the recession.
Overall, 8.5 million people received unemployment benefits in the week ending March 26, the latest data available. That's down slightly from the previous week.
Applications for unemployment benefits could rise further in the coming weeks due to disruptions from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Toyota said last week that it will probably be forced to temporarily shut down all of its North American factories. Nissan and Ford Motor Co. have said several North American plants would be closed for some of April.
Businesses in February posted the largest number of job openings in more than two years, evidence that hiring is picking up. Employers advertised 3.1 million available jobs that month, the most since September 2008, the government reported Wednesday.
Google Inc, electronics store hhgregg Inc. and Kohl's Corp. are among the companies that have announced plans in recent weeks to increase hiring.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.