By Michelle Jamrisko
WASHINGTON - Claims for U.S. unemployment benefits increased more than forecast last week, nearly erasing a slide in the prior two weeks and reflecting the difficulty of adjusting the figures for swings at the start of a year.
Initial jobless claims rose 38,000 in the week ended Jan. 26, the most since Nov. 10, to 368,000, the Labor Department reported today in Washington. Economists forecast 350,000 filings, according to the Bloomberg survey median. The increase followed a combined 45,000 drop in the prior two weeks.
Last week’s jump “shouldn’t raise any red flags because a lot of it is attributed to some of these seasonal fluctuations,” Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said before the report. “It doesn’t suggest the labor market’s deteriorating. In fact, some of the other data suggest that the labor market is holding up pretty well.”
Employers created about the same number of jobs in January as a month earlier, indicating labor market progress is unfolding about at the same pace as it has the last two years, figures tomorrow may show. Faster consumer spending and corporate investment in new equipment at the end of 2012 indicate employers may look past federal budget debates in Washington and add to headcounts.
The swings in jobless claims may reflect challenges the agency has adjusting the data during the holiday period and at the start of quarters. In 2008, claims slumped in the early part of January before rebounding at the end of the month. Claims this month are typical of this volatility, a Labor Department spokesman said as the figures were released.
Estimates for first-time claims ranged from 320,000 to 390,000 in the Bloomberg survey of 51 economists. No states estimated their claims figures last week.
Another report showed employment expenses in the U.S. rose in the fourth quarter at about the same pace as the previous three months. The employment cost index increased 0.5 percent after a 0.4 percent gain, the Labor Department said. Economists projected a 0.5 percent advance in the final three months of 2012, according to the Bloomberg survey median.
The gauge measures companies’ costs of wages, benefits and employer-paid taxes such as Social Security and Medicare, which together account for about 70 percent of total employment costs.
Wage gains for all employees increased 0.3 percent from the previous three months and 1.7 percent from the same quarter the prior year. Wages for private workers and for state and local government employees climbed 0.3 percent from the third quarter.
Benefit costs for all workers, which include some bonuses, severance pay, health insurance and paid vacations, rose 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter from the previous three months.
The number of people who continue to collect jobless benefits climbed by 22,000 to 3.2 million in the week ended Jan. 19. The continuing claims figure does not include workers receiving extended benefits from the federal government.
Those who’ve exhausted their traditional benefits and now are collecting emergency and extended payments jumped by about 418,000 to 2.11 million in the week ended Jan. 12.
The unemployment rate among people eligible for benefits held at 2.5 percent in the week ended Jan. 19. Fifty states and territories reported a drop in claims during that week, while three said they rose.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth accelerates. The Labor Department, scheduled to release payrolls data tomorrow, may report a 165,000 increase in January employment after a 155,000 rise a month earlier, according to the Bloomberg survey median. Payrolls gains averaged 153,000 in 2012 and 2011. The jobless rate held at 7.8 percent, the survey showed.