WASHINGTON— The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits surged last week, reversing a big drop caused by seasonal factors.
Applications for benefits rose by 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The increase followed a drop of 24,000 the previous week and was the biggest jump since April 2011.
But economists view the recent numbers with skepticism. The government struggles to adjust the data to reflect temporary summertime layoffs in the auto industry, they note. And this year, many automakers skipped those typical shutdowns to keep up with demand. That led to fewer layoffs two weeks ago, which the Labor Department didn't anticipate.
"All of this is statistical noise," Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc., wrote in a note to clients. "What will be more important than these short-term gyrations is where claims settle down after the distortions end. We suspect that the data will point to a soggy labor market."
The less volatile four-week average fell by 1,500 to 375,500.
When applications fall below 375,000, it typically suggests hiring is strong enough to pull the unemployment rate down. Applications had been trending near or above that level this spring.
Nearly 5.8 million Americans were receiving some type of unemployment benefit the week that ended June 30, according to the most recent data available. That was down from 7.3 million a year earlier.
"Although the labor market is stronger than it was in 2011, it is not particularly robust," says Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics.
The economy appears to be suffering its third straight midyear slump.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke this week offered a bleak assessment of the economy. And a survey from the Fed said hiring was "tepid" in most districts in June and early July, retail sales slowed in Boston, Cleveland and New York, and manufacturing weakened in most regions.
Job growth slowed to 75,000 a month from April through June, down from healthy 226,000 pace the first three months of the year. Unemployment has been stuck at 8.2 percent for two straight months.
Retail sales fell in June for the third straight month, prompting many economists to downgrade their estimates of economic growth in the April-June quarter. Many now think it will be even slower than the first quarter's sluggish 1.9 percent annual pace.
The only good news recently has been evidence of a long-awaited recovery in the housing market. The government reported Wednesday that U.S. builders last month broke ground on the most homes in nearly four years. Single-family home building rose for a fourth straight month. And permits to build single-family homes hit the highest level since March 2010.