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Jobless claims rise unexpectedly

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The number of newly laid-off workers seeking jobless benefits rose more than expected last week, after falling for five straight weeks.

Despite the increase, claims have fallen steadily since this summer, a sign that job cuts are slowing and hiring could pick up as soon as early next year amid a broad economic recovery.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance rose by 17,000, to a seasonally adjusted 474,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was above analysts' expectations of 460,000 new claims.

Claims were partly inflated by a surge following the Thanksgiving holiday week, when many state unemployment offices are closed, a department analyst said. Seasonal layoffs in the construction industry also played a role.

Economists closely monitor initial claims, which are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies' willingness to hire new workers.

The four-week average of claims, which smooths fluctuations, fell to 473,750, its 14th straight decline and the lowest level since September 2008.

Still, claims will have to fall to about 425,000 for several weeks to signal the economy is actually adding jobs, according to many economists.

The number of people continuing to claim benefits fell by 303,000, to 5.16 million, the lowest level since February. The total unemployment benefit rolls have fallen in 11 of the past 12 weeks.

But the so-called continuing claims do not include millions of people that have used up the regular 26 weeks of benefits typically provided by states, and are receiving extended benefits for up to 73 additional weeks, paid for by the federal government.

About 4.6 million people were receiving extended benefits in the week ended Nov. 21, the latest data available. That's an increase of about 130,000 from the previous week, and is partly due to an extension of benefits that Congress enacted last month.

The economy grew at a 2.8-percent pace in the July-September quarter and analysts say it is likely growing at a similar pace in the current quarter. But that is much slower than the average 6-percent rate in previous economic recoveries.

As a result, most economists expect the unemployment rate to rise in coming months and remain above 9 percent through the end of next year.

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