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Applications for jobless benefits rise to 339,000

Staff writer |
The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose 8,000 last week to 339,000. The Labor Department said that the four week average of applications increased 3,500 to a seasonally adjusted 336,750.

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The average is roughly in line with pre-recession levels and suggests that, despite last week's rise, companies are cutting few jobs. Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Last week's figure may also have been pushed up by cold weather, which can cause construction firms and other companies to stop work.

A total of 3.52 million Americans received benefits as of Jan. 25 — the latest data available — up from 3.47 million the previous week. The data suggests the job market remains stable, despite weak hiring in the past two months. Tepid job gains in January and December have raised concerns that the economy has lost momentum this year.

A sharp slowdown in growth and hiring is less likely as long as applications for unemployment benefits remain relatively low. Steady applications suggest businesses are confident enough in the economy to hold onto their workers.

Extremely cold weather discouraged shoppers in January and caused a 0.4 percent drop in retail sales, the Commerce Department said in a separate report. Sales in December were also revised lower. The data indicated that consumer spending has lost momentum after a strong finish last year.

Employers added just 113,000 jobs in January, a second straight weak showing after just 75,000 new jobs in December.

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