updated 11/29/2007 9:04:34 AM ET 2007-11-29T14:04:34

The number of new people signing up for jobless benefits last week jumped sharply, suggesting that the labor market is softening as national economic activity slows.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that new applications filed for unemployment insurance rose by a seasonally adjusted 23,000 to 352,000. It was the highest level since Feb. 10.

The report surprised economists. They were forecasting claims to hold steady around 330,000.

The economy, which grew at a brisk 4.9 percent pace in the summer, is expected to slow to a pace of just 1.5 percent or less in the current October-to-December period as housing and credit troubles take their toll on consumers and businesses alike.

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