updated 7/10/2008 9:08:20 AM ET 2008-07-10T13:08:20

Fewer people signed up for unemployment benefits last week, but not enough to obscure continuing weakness in the country’s labor market.

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The Labor Department reported Thursday that new applications filed for unemployment insurance fell by a seasonally adjusted 58,000 to 346,000 for the week ending July 5. A year ago, the figure was lower, at 304,000, showing a deterioration in employment conditions.

A government analyst cautioned that last week’s drop did not suggest a sudden improvement in the country’s overall economic health. The decline was exaggerated because of adjustment problems related to temporary shutdowns at auto plants for retooling new assembly lines. The unadjusted, or actual raw figures, showed an increase of 30,000 claims for last week.

Economists were forecasting claims to dip to 395,000 last week, from a spike of 404,000 in the previous week.

The number of people continuing to draw unemployment benefits jumped by 91,000 to 3.2 million for the week ending June 28, the most recent period for which that information is available. That increase left such filings at the highest level since late December 2003. A year ago, the figure stood at 2.5 million.

Employers have been chafing under high energy prices and fallout from the housing and credit crises. As they try to cope with those problems and squeezed profits, they have cut back on hiring and other types of investments.

Cautious employers have cut jobs for six months straight, bringing total losses to 438,000 so far this year, the government reported last week. The economy needs to generate more than 100,000 new jobs a month for employment to remain stable.

The jobless rate in June held steady at 5.5 percent after jumping in May by the most in two decades. However, the unemployment rate is expected to climb to 6 percent or higher by early next year.

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