By Alex Kowalski
WASHINGTON - The number of Americans filing claims for jobless benefits rose to 362,000 last week, a level consistent with an improving labor market.
Applications for unemployment insurance payments increased by 8,000 in the week ended March 3, Labor Department figures showed Thursday. Economists forecast 352,000 claims, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey. The average over the past four weeks held close to a four-year low.
The rate of firings indicates companies have grown more comfortable with headcounts and could take on additional employees when demand picks up. Economists forecast a Labor Department report Friday will show that employers boosted payrolls in February and the jobless rate held at an almost three-year low.
“The downtrend in claims, even with this modest uptick this week, is being sustained,” said Eric Green, chief market economist at TD Securities Inc. in New York. “This is consistent with a much better labor market. The shift higher in job activity looks to be in tact.”
Stock-index futures held earlier gains after the report as Greece moved closer to completing its debt swap. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing this month rose 0.7 percent to 1,362.5 at 8:44 a.m. in New York.
Estimates for first-time claims ranged from 345,000 to 370,000 in the Bloomberg News survey of 52 economists. The Labor Department revised the prior week’s applications to 354,000 from the initially reported 351,000.
A Labor Department official March 8 said there were no unusual circumstances affecting today’s figures.
The four-week moving average, a less-volatile measure, was little changed at 355,000 from 354,750, which were the fewest since March 2008.
The number of people continuing to collect jobless benefits rose by 10,000 in the week ended Feb. 25 to 3.42 million. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of workers receiving extended benefits under federal programs.
Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments increased by about 26,800 to 3.4 million in the week ended Feb. 18.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits held at 2.7 percent in the week ended Feb. 25, Thursday’s report showed. Twelve states and territories reported an increase in claims, while 41 had a decrease.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth -- measured by the monthly non-farm payrolls report -- accelerates.
Job creation has strengthened in recent months. The projected 210,000 increase in February payrolls would cap the best six-month stretch of job growth since the period ended June 2006, more than a year before the recession began. Employers took on an estimated 1.13 million workers from September through February.
Data from a private report based on payrolls showed companies added more workers in February than a month earlier. Employment increased by 216,000 last month after a 173,000 gain in January, according to figures from ADP Employer Services released yesterday.
Improving job prospects will help absorb those who are still losing jobs. International Business Machines Corp., the world’s largest computer-services provider, fired more than 1,000 workers in North America last week, according to employee advocacy group Alliance@IBM.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said “the job market remains far from normal” when he spoke at a U.S. House hearing in Washington last week. The 8.3 percent unemployment rate and a subdued inflation outlook warrant a highly accommodative stance for monetary policy, he said.