Considerably more newly laid-off workers signed up for unemployment benefits last week, although the figures suggest the job market remains stable even as a housing slump afflicts the economy.
The Labor Department reported Wednesday that new applications filed for the work week ending Nov. 18, rose by a seasonally adjusted 12,000 to 321,000. The increase was bigger than many economists were expecting. They were forecasting new claims to clock in at about 310,000.
Even though the increase left claims at a three-week high, the level was still considered consistent with a jobs climate that remains decent despite the strain of job losses related to the cooling of the once-sizzling housing market. The current number of new filings for unemployment benefits is in line with last year's applications in this same time frame, when claims stood at 322,000.
The more stable, four-week moving average of claims, which smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, rose to 317,000 last week. That was an increase of 3,000 from the previous week. And it marked the highest level since late August. Compared with a year ago, the four-week moving average of claims has remained fairly stable. For the same week last year, the moving average stood at 316,750.
The report also said that the number of people continuing to collect unemployment benefits grew by 14,000 _ to 2.45 million _ for the week ending Nov. 11, the most recent period for which that information is available.
Other barometers suggest that the job market thus far is weathering well the slowdown in overall economic activity.
The unemployment rate sank to a five-year low of 4.4 percent in October and workers' wages grew solidly, the government reported earlier this month.
Economic growth slowed to a 1.6 percent annual rate in the late summer, the most sluggish pace in more than three years. The housing slump was the biggest factor in the slowdown.
The Federal Reserve has left interest rates intact since August and is likely to stay on the sidelines at their next meeting on Dec. 12. The Fed, which had hoisted rates 17 times since June 2004, wants the economy to slow sufficiently to thwart inflation but not so much as to tip into recession.