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The number of Americans lining up for jobless benefits fell only slightly last week and a trend measure rose, the latest sign of a weaker pace of healing in the still-struggling labour market.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 388,000, the Labour Department said on Thursday. The prior week's figure was revised up to 389,000 from the previously reported 386,000.
"This was a disappointing number and offers more evidence that the labor market continues to lose traction," said Joe Manimbo, an analyst at Western Union Business Solutions in Washington.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new claims falling to 375,000 last week.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a closely followed measure of labour market trends, rose 6,250 to 381,750, its highest since the week that ended January 7.
The report was the latest example of fizzling momentum in the labour market recovery.
Employers added 120,000 new jobs to their payrolls in March, the least since October, after averaging 246,000 jobs per month over the prior three months. New claims for unemployment benefits fell sharply during early winter but the improvement has largely stalled in recent weeks.
Other reports have shown the economy losing a step at the close of the first quarter. Industrial output was flat in March for the second straight month.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Wednesday said the U.S. central bank "would not hesitate" to launch another round of bond purchases to drive borrowing costs lower if it looked like the economy needed it.
Many economists believe a mild winter boosted payrolls growth earlier in the year and view recent stagnation as payback for those gains. But the longer that claims stay elevated, the more worried economists will be that the economy is losing vigor.
"This (claims data) would increase concerns over what we saw earlier this year was really a fluke," said Beth Ann Bovino, an economist at Standard & Poor's Ratings Services in New York.
A Labour Department official said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data in the claims report.
The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid rose 3,000 to 3.315 million in the week ended April 14.
The number of Americans on emergency unemployment benefits fell 45,930 to 2.73 million in the week ended April 7, the latest week for which data is available.
A total of 6.68 million people were claiming unemployment benefits during that period under all programs, down 87,160 from the prior week.