WASHINGTON — Applications for unemployment benefits rose last week, returning to levels seen prior to the holiday period and indicating little change in the pace of firings.
Jobless claims increased by 20,000 to 362,000 in the week ended Feb. 16, the Labor Department reported Thursday in Washington. The median forecast of 48 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for an increase to 355,000. The number of applications in three states and the District of Columbia were estimated because of the holiday-shortened week, a Labor Department spokesman said as the data was released.
Companies are maintaining their staffing levels even amid concern that rising gasoline prices and a January tax increase will damp consumer spending. Looming cuts in government spending also threaten to slow growth, a sign that hiring may be limited in coming months.
"Businesses just seem to be sitting tight with regard to layoffs, which is reason for optimism," Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pa., said before the report. "If we get through these hurdles over the next couple months the job market should begin to improve more noticeably," said Sweet, who was the best forecaster of jobless claims over the past two years ended last week, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Officials in California and Virginia submitted estimates for their claims last week because they didn't have time to compile all the numbers as a result of the Presidents Day holiday on Feb. 18. The Labor Department submitted estimates on behalf of Hawaii and the nation's capital.
Economists' estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 330,000 to 375,000 claims. The Labor Department revised the previous week's figure up to 342,000 from a previously reported 341,000.
The less-volatile four-week average climbed to 360,750 from 352,750. The average at the end of October, before the typical swings related to the year-end holidays set in, was 367,250.
Last week corresponded to the period the Labor Department will survey businesses to calculate the payroll data for February. The average last week was little changed from January's 360,000 for the comparable period.
The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits rose by 11,000 to 3.15 million in the week ended Feb. 9. The continuing claims figure doesn't include Americans receiving extended unemployment benefits under federal programs.
Those people collecting emergency and extended payments plunged by about 233,000 to 1.85 million in the week ended Feb. 2.
Eleven states and territories reported an increase in claims, while 42 reported an increase. These data are reported with a one-week lag.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth, measured by the monthly non-farm payrolls report, accelerates.
Bob Evans Farms Inc. implemented a hiring freeze in May and is feeling the effects of higher taxes and gas prices. The Columbus, Ohio-based chain is rehabbing its family restaurants, expanding takeout service and hawking its low-cost meals to boost business.
"There's not much we can do about the economy," Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steve Davis said on a Feb. 20 earnings call. "Even though we saw some hiccups, we're still encouraged on what we're able to control."