WASHINGTON — Weekly applications for U.S. unemployment benefits rose 19,000 last week to 348,000, the highest in about a month. But the broader trend in applications remains low.
The Labor Department says that the four-week average, a less volatile measure, increased just 750 to 333,000. The increase follows three weeks of declines.
The average is close to pre-recession levels and suggests that, despite last week’s rise, layoffs remain low. But hiring will need to pick up to reduce the still-high 6.7 percent unemployment rate.
Employers added just 74,000 jobs in December, the fewest in three years and far below the average of 214,000 added in the previous four months. Most economists forecast that hiring will rebound in January to roughly the 185,000 average monthly job gains of the past two years.
The unemployment rate fell in December to 6.7 percent from 7 percent. But much of the decline was due to an exodus of about 347,000 unemployed people who stopped looking for work. Once people without jobs stop looking for one, they’re no longer counted as unemployed.
About 3.6 million people received benefits in the week ended Jan. 11, the latest data available. That’s about 123,000 fewer than the previous week. That total has fallen 39 percent in the past year.
About 1.4 million people lost extended unemployment benefits after a 5-year old emergency federal program expired Dec. 28. The program provided up to 47 extra weeks of unemployment aid paid for by the federal government.
In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged Congress to extend the program. But congressional Democrats haven’t been able to reach agreement with Republicans on how to offset the estimated $6 billion cost for a three-month extension.
There are some signs the economic growth is picking up. The economy expanded at a healthy 3.2 percent annual rate in the October-December quarter. Consumer confidence rose in January, a sign that Americans may keep spending this year after a big increase in the final three months of 2013. Factory output rose for a fifth straight month in December.
But not all recent signs have been positive. Income rose at a slower pace than spending last month, so Americans are spending more but saving less. And businesses placed fewer orders with U.S. factories in December for machinery and other capital goods.