Washington The number of Americans filing new claims for state unemployment insurance rose last week to the highest level since 1998, fresh evidence that companies are shedding workers to cope with the weak economy.
Economists said Thursday's report was consistent with their forecasts that the nation's unemployment rate for March to be released today by the government will climb to 4.3 percent from February's 4.2 percent.
"The labor market is weak but not collapsing," said Merrill Lynch economist Karen Dexter. "Jobless claims ... remain in a range consistent with slower growth, but no recession."
The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial applications for jobless benefits climbed by 18,000 to a seasonally adjusted 383,000 for the work week ending March 31.
That was the highest level since July 4, 1998, when claims stood at 384,000. The increase in claims was bigger than many analysts were expecting.
The more stable four-week moving average of jobless claims, which smoothes out week-to-week fluctuations, rose last week to 377,500. That was the highest level since March 17 when claims stood at 377,750.
Some analysts said the claims report suggested weak growth in new jobs added to the nation's payrolls in March, which is part of today's employment report. But others suggests the level of claims may be pointing to no job growth.
"Our research shows that sustained jobless claims around 375,000 is consistent with zero job growth," said Maury Harris, chief economist at UBS Warburg. Initial claims have been at or above the 375,000 mark for the last five weeks.
During the last three months of 2000, the economy slowed to an annual rate of just 1 percent, the weakest performance in more than five years. Some economists believe the economy continued to lose steam in the recently ended first quarter, while a few believe it may have stalled or slid into reverse.