By Alex Kowalski and Shobhana Chandra
WASHINGTON - Claims for unemployment insurance payments fell last week, returning to levels seen in the second half of 2012.
Applications for jobless benefits dropped 5,000 to 366,000 in the week ended Feb. 2, Labor Department figures showed Thursday. Economists forecast 360,000 claims, according to the median of 53 estimates in a Bloomberg survey.
Claims, after see-sawing in prior weeks as the government had trouble adjusting the data for seasonal swings, are settling at a level that signals there is little change in the pace of firings from last year. The data come after a report last week indicated employers are boosting payrolls at a faster pace as demand holds up.
“It could be better, but you’re still seeing improvement in other labor market data,” Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan Chase in New York, said before the report.
Economists’ claims estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 343,000 to 370,000. The Labor Department revised the prior week’s reading to 371,000 from the initially reported 368,000.
A Labor Department official today said there was nothing unusual that affected today’s figures, and no states were estimated.
The productivity of U.S. workers fell in the fourth quarter by the most in almost two years, pushing labor expenses up more than forecast, a sign businesses are near the limit of how much efficiency they can wring from employees, another report from the Labor Department showed Thursday.
The four-week moving average of jobless claims, a less- volatile measure, fell to 350,500, the lowest since March 2008, from 352,750. The average reflects a plunge to 330,000 in initial claims two weeks ago that reflected difficulty in adjusting the data from the holidays and the start of a quarter.
The number of people continuing to collect jobless benefits rose by 8,000 to 3.22 million in the week ended Jan. 26. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of workers receiving extended benefits under federal programs.
Those who’ve used up their traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments decreased by about 288,300 to 1.83 million in the week ended Jan. 19.
Four states and territories reported an increase in claims, while 49 reported a decrease.
Initial jobless claims reflect weekly firings and tend to fall as job growth — measured by the monthly non-farm payrolls report — accelerates.
Employers added 157,000 workers to payrolls in January after hiring a revised 196,000 the month before and 247,000 in November, a Labor Department report showed Feb. 1. Revisions added a total of 127,000 jobs to the count in the last two months of 2012, bringing the average monthly gain for the quarter to 201,000. It was the best performance since the first three months of 2012.
The report also showed the unemployment rate unexpectedly rose to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent, the pickup in hiring still falls short of what’s needed to quickly bring down joblessness.
Improving employment opportunities would help insulate consumers from higher taxes this year and lift the household spending that drives the economy.
Home Depot Inc., the nation’s largest home-improvement retailer, is adding to job prospects. The Atlanta-based company said this week it plans to add more than 80,000 temporary workers ahead of its busiest season, about 14 percent more than a year ago, as a housing rebound spurs spending on remodeling and landscaping.