Jobless claims jump back to 399,000 after holiday season

First-time claims for jobless benefits rose steeply last week as employers shed holiday workers. 

Applications for unemployment insurance rose by 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 399,000 in the week ending Jan. 7, the highest level in six weeks, the Labor Department reported on Thursday. 

The increase isn't an unusual occurrence, as layoffs typically rise in January — the Labor Department struggles to make adjustments to the widely varying data this time of year — as temporary workers leave the workforce after the holiday season. 

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The four-week average, a less volatile measure than the weekly figures, was up to 381,750, an increase of 7,750 from the previous week's revised average of 374,000. Initial claims had been steadily falling and had hit their lowest level in more than three years in December as the labor market showed signs of healing in recent months.

Economists say the sign of a healthy job market is when claims for benefits drop below 375,000, which happened for two weeks in December. 

Job growth and the improvement of the economy are major themes in the 2012 campaign, and President Obama would likely benefit from upturns, especially a lower unemployment rate. 

Still, predictions from economists are cautious at best, with growth expected to start out more robust through the first three months of this year before falling off later in 2012. 

A couple of months ago, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said he thought the economy was rather unlucky: he mentioned the earthquake in Japan that interrupted global supply chains, the European debt crisis and a snowy U.S. winter that put greater burdens on states. Recent positive data such as improving consumer confidence could be a boon for the economy starving for a boost in momentum. 

Seasonal hiring had a net gain of 718,500 during the final three months of the year, a 14.5 percent increase over the 627,500 seasonal jobs added during the same period in 2010, according to a recent analysis by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement consulting firm.

Employers added 200,000 net jobs last month while the unemployment rate dropped to 8.5 percent, a three-year low. 

While job growth is a positive sign, the economy will have to crank out a large number of jobs each month to make a dent in the jobless rate as 13.1 million remain unemployed while millions of others have either stopped looking for work or are underemployed. 

The economy added 1.64 million jobs last year, and while that is up from 940,000 in 2010, expectations for this year are running right around 2 million — still nowhere near what is needed to get workers back into the labor force and into full recovery mode from the loss of 8.75 million jobs during the downturn.