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Rising jobless claims hit four-month weekly high

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The number of Americans filing jobless claims reached a four-month high last week, sparking renewed concerns that the labor market is still on shaky ground.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that weekly applications increased by 28,000, the third straight increase, to a seasonally adjusted 385,000. That's the highest level since late November. The gain pushed the four-week average, a less volatile measure, to 354,250. It marked a 28,000 increase from February and the highest jobless claims since November.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is scheduled to release the March employment numbers on Friday.

The unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent in February after total non-farm payroll employment increased by 236,000.

The recent increases could be a sign that companies are starting to trim jobs, possibly because of steep government spending cuts that began on March 1. Earlier reports this week suggested that companies may have slowed hiring this month after four months of strong job growth.

Economists said they wanted to see more data before concluding the job market's trajectory has changed.

"We suspect the surge in the last two weeks reflects seasonal adjustment problems more than any fundamental change in the trend, but of course that remains to be seen," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, in a note to clients, the Associated Press reported.

Economists forecast the Labor Department's jobless number Friday will show employers added 195,000 jobs last month, a healthy figure but below February's total of 236,000.

Job growth has picked up in recent months, but labor economists still see several worrisome trends, including the persistence of long-term unemployment for many Americans and an unusually high number of people who say they simply have dropped out of the labor force.

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