The number of new people signing up for unemployment benefits rose last week, but even with the pickup the level of applications still pointed to an improving job climate.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that new applications filed for unemployment insurance increased by a seasonally adjusted 3,000 to 322,000 for the week ending Dec. 24. That matched economists' expectations.
In the prior week, new filings for jobless benefits dropped by 12,000.
The latest snapshot of layoff activity confirms that the labor market isafter being knocked around by the Gulf Coast hurricanes. In the middle of September, new applications for jobless benefits surged above the 400,000 mark. Since then, they have slowly drifted downward.
In fact the 322,000 level of claims registered last week was slightly better than the 324,000 seen for the corresponding week a year ago.
Thursday's report also showed that the more stable four-week moving average of overall jobless claims, which smooths out weekly fluctuations, rose by just 250 to 325,000 last week. A year ago, this figure stood at 330,750.
The number of people continuing to collect unemployment benefits increased to 2.72 million for the week ending Dec. 17, the most recent period for which that information is available. A year ago, this figure was 2.75 million.
Hiring which was stifled by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in September and October,as employers boosted payrolls by 215,000, the government had reported earlier this month.
Analysts predict another 200,000 jobs were added in December, and that the unemployment rate will hold steady at 5 percent. The employment report for December will be released next week.
Hurricane Katrina plowed into the Gulf Coast near the end of August, and Rita followed in late September. Wilma struck in late October.
A Labor Department analyst said that the agency, beginning Thursday, would no longer break out the number of weekly job losses related to the hurricanes. Because the