WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people continuing to seek unemployment benefits has risen sharply, according to government data released Thursday, indicating that laid-off workers are having a harder time finding new jobs as the recession enters its second year.
The Labor Department also reported that initial applications for unemployment insurance dropped by 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 467,000 for the week ending Jan. 3. Wall Street economists expected initial claims to increase, but analysts said the new figure reflects the difficulty the government has in making seasonal adjustments over the holiday period.
The four-week average of initial claims, which smooths out fluctuations but also includes the shortened holiday weeks, fell by 27,000 to 525,750.
The number of people continuing to claim jobless benefits jumped unexpectedly by 101,000 to 4.61 million. That was above analysts' expectations of 4.5 million and the highest level since November 1982, when the nation was emerging from a steep recession, though the labor force has grown by about half since then. The data for continuing claims is for the week ended Dec. 27.
"Getting a job in this environment ... is extremely difficult," said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc., a New York consulting firm.
Companies have resumed mass layoffs after a brief respite over the holidays. This week alone, insurance provider Cigna Corp., aluminum producer Alcoa Inc., data-storage company EMC Corp. and computer products maker Logitech International have announced large job cuts.
Unemployment figures due out Friday are expected to show that the U.S. lost a net total of 500,000 jobs in December. If accurate, that would bring total job losses last year to 2.4 million, the first annual job loss since 2001 and the highest since 1945, though the number of jobs has more than tripled since then.
The job cuts are expected to send the unemployment rate to 7 percent in December, up from 6.7 percent the previous month. That would be the highest level since June 1993. The unemployment rate also will be released Friday.
Last week was the second in a row that initial claims have come in below 500,000, after seven weeks above that level. A Labor Department analyst said the dip could be a result of companies laying off workers earlier this winter than in previous years. Initial claims reached a 26-year high of 589,000 two weeks ago.
Economists said the drop in initial claims is likely an aberration due to seasonal volatility. For example, Shapiro said that retailers engaged in less hiring over the holidays, leading to fewer layoffs afterward.
Automakers General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC also cut jobs earlier last year than in previous years as their sales were hammered by the credit crunch, Shapiro said.
As a result, initial claims are likely to top 500,000 again in the next month or so, economists said.
"We have to expect a hefty rebound and new highs in (jobless) claims over the next few months," Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, wrote in a research note.
Three states said earlier this week that their online and phone filing systems for unemployment benefits crashed due to the heavy volume of first-time filers. The impact of that volume won't be seen until next week's data.
Analysts say increasing unemployment is adding to consumer anxiety and further reducing their spending, which drives about 70 percent of the economy. Retailers reported dismal December sales figures Thursday, confirming fears that the holiday shopping season was the worst in four decades.
On Wall Street, investor concerns about consumer spending and unemployment sent stocks lower as bad news from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. signaled that even the stronger U.S. retailers struggled during the holiday shopping season. The Dow Jones industrials lost more than 90 points in midday trading.
President-elect Barack Obama, who takes over Jan. 20, is proposing a mammoth $775 billion package of tax cuts and government spending over two years to revive the moribund economy. With add-ons by lawmakers, the package could swell to $850 billion, his advisers say.
Obama on Thursday warned of dire and lasting consequences if Congress doesn't pump unprecedented dollars into the economy. "In short, a bad situation could become dramatically worse" if Washington doesn't go far enough to address the spreading crisis, he said.
But even with a big government stimulus, economists still believe the unemployment rate will keep climbing, hitting 8 to 10 percent by the end of this year. Obama's economic advisers estimate that a $850 billion recovery package would lower the jobless rate to about 7.4 percent and create 3.2 million jobs by the first quarter of 2011.
This program aired on January 8, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.