By Christopher S. Rugaber
WASHINGTON -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits remained stuck near a three-month high last week, a sign that hiring has likely slowed since winter.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dipped 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 388,000. It was little changed from the previous week's figure, the highest since Jan. 7.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 381,750, also the highest in three months.
Applications jumped sharply three weeks ago, a sign that employers had stepped up layoffs and added fewer jobs. Economists said the increase might have been inflated by temporary layoffs during the spring holidays, when many school employees are laid off.
But applications haven't dropped back since then. The increase follows a report earlier this month that showed hiring slowed in March.
Many economists suggested that weather might have distorted the March jobs report. A warmer winter likely pulled some hiring that normally would have occurred last month into January and February. They have noted that the economy has added an average of 212,000 jobs a month in the January-March quarter, well ahead of last year's pace.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke agreed Wednesday that weather has likely disrupted recent data.
The warm winter "made perhaps January and February artificially strong and March perhaps artificially a little bit weak," he said at a news conference. "I wouldn't draw too much conclusion from the March report."
The unemployment rate has fallen to 8.2 percent in March from 9.1 percent in August. Part of the drop was related to people gave up looking for work. People who are out of work but not looking for jobs aren't counted among the unemployed.
Economists note that unemployment benefit applications are lower than they were last year. The government's report next week on April employment should help clarify the jobs picture.
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