updated 7/23/2009 10:34:11 AM ET 2009-07-23T14:34:11

The number of newly laid-off workers seeking jobless benefits rose last week, though the government said its report again was distorted by the timing of auto plant shutdowns.

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Unemployment insurance claims have declined steadily since the spring, but most private economists and the Federal Reserve expect jobs to remain scarce and the unemployment rate to top 10 percent by year-end.

The Labor Department said Thursday that its tally of initial claims for unemployment insurance rose by 30,000 to a seasonally adjusted 554,000. That was above analysts’ estimates of 550,000.

The increase follows two straight weeks of sharp drops largely because automakers didn’t lay off as many workers as expected in early July. General Motors and Chrysler temporarily shut down many of their plants earlier than usual this year, in May and June, after filing for bankruptcy protection and restructuring their companies.

A department analyst said the government’s seasonal adjustment process expected claims to drop sharply last week, after the normal pattern of auto layoffs was complete. But that didn’t happen, causing seasonally-adjusted claims to rise.

Still, some economists saw positive signs in the report. The four-week average of claims, which smooths out fluctuations, dropped to 566,000, its lowest level since January.

“The trend in jobless claims is still downward,” Joseph Lavornga, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, wrote in a note to clients.

But Lavornga also said the unemployment rate likely will keep rising as long as initial claims remain above 400,000. He expects the jobless rate to increase to 9.6 percent this month, from a 26-year high of 9.5 percent in June.

The financial markets shrugged off the news. The Dow Jones industrial average added about 110 points in morning trading and broader indices also rose.

Still, weekly claims remain far above the 300,000 to 350,000 that analysts say is consistent with a healthy economy. New claims last fell below 300,000 in early 2007. The lowest level this year was 488,000 for the week ended Jan. 3.

The total jobless benefit rolls, meanwhile, fell by a more-than-expected 88,000 to 6.2 million, the lowest level since mid-April. And the four-week moving average of claims, which normally smooths out some volatility, fell by 19,000 to 566,000.

But the number of people on emergency extended state and federal programs continued to rise. Unemployment insurance recipients can receive up to 53 weeks of additional benefits from the emergency programs, on top of the 26 weeks typically provided by the states.

When the extended benefit rolls are included, more than 9.1 million people received jobless benefits for the week of July 4, the latest data available.

The recession, which started in December 2007 and is the longest since World War II, has eliminated a net total of 6.5 million jobs. The unemployment rate in June rose to 9.5 percent, a 26-year high.

More job cuts were announced this week, many by major airlines.

Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. reported a quarterly loss of $213 million and said it would slash 1,700 more jobs on top of 1,200 already announced. Southwest Airlines Co., which has never laid off workers, announced that 1,400 employees — about 4 percent of its work force — took offers of cash and travel benefits to leave the Dallas-based company.

Among the states, New York reported the largest increase in initial claims, with 12,504, which it attributed to higher layoffs in the construction and transportation industries. The next largest increases were reported by North Carolina, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee. The state data lags initial claims by one week.

Michigan reported the largest decrease, with 6,648, which it attributed to fewer layoffs in most industries. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Indiana and California reported the next largest drops.

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