WASHINGTON — The end of the holiday shopping season led to more Americans seeking unemployment benefits last week, raising the number of applications to an 18-week high. Still, the number remains near historically low levels.
The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for benefits jumped 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 316,000.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 6,750 to 298,000. That average has plunged 11.4 percent over the past 12 months and has remained near historically low 300,000 levels since September.
The recent trend suggests that employers expect solid economic growth to continue, causing them to hold onto their workers and possibly increase their headcounts.
The four-week average "still suggests solid job growth above 200,000 per month," said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.
However, economists are also weighing whether the increase primarily reflects a slight downshift in the pace of hiring or the regular difficulty in seasonally adjusting the impact of retailers and shipping firms letting go of holiday workers.
"The rise in claims will keep us on alert for the possibility that momentum is weakening a bit, although the weekly data can be even more volatile than usual around this time of year," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief economist at High Frequency Economics.
In its report last week on December employment, the government said the economy added a robust 252,000 jobs last month, plus a combined 50,000 more in October and November than it had previously estimated. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent from 5.8 percent in November.
The unemployment rate is at its lowest point since 2008, and the addition of nearly 3 million jobs during 2014 was the highest annual total since 1999.
There are some signs that the current pace of hiring appears likely to continue. Job openings rose 2.9 percent to 4.97 million in November, the most since January 2001, the government said Tuesday. An increase in vacancies usually corresponds with faster job growth.
Still, wage growth has lagged behind hiring. Average wages rose a mere 1.7 percent over the past 12 months and actually fell between November and December. The result is that incomes are barely outpacing overall inflation, which, with consumer prices up just 1.3 percent year-over-year, remains below the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target.