End of holiday season boosts unemployment applications

By JOSH BOAK, AP Economics Writer

Job seekers at a job fair in Miami Lakes, Fla.
Job seekers at a job fair in Miami Lakes, Fla. AP

WASHINGTON – The end of the holiday season led to more Americans seeking unemployment benefits last week, raising the number of applications to an 18-week high. Still, the number remains near historically low levels.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for benefits jumped 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 316,000.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 6,750 to 298,000. That average has plunged 11.4 percent over the past 12 months and has remained near historically low 300,000 levels since September.

The longer-term trend suggests that employers expect solid economic growth to continue, causing them to hold onto their workers and possibly increase their headcounts.

In its report last week on December employment, the government said the economy added a robust 252,000 jobs last month, plus a combined 50,000 more in October and November than it had previously estimated. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent from 5.8 percent in November.

The unemployment rate is at its lowest point since 2008, and the addition of nearly 3 million jobs during 2014 was the highest annual total since 1999.

The strong pace of hiring appears likely to continue.

Job openings rose 2.9 percent to 4.97 million in November, the most since January 2001, the government said Tuesday. An increase in vacancies usually corresponds with job growth as a faster pace.

Still, wage growth has lagged behind hiring. Average wages increased a mere 1.7 percent in the past 12 months and actually tumbled slightly between November and December. The result is that incomes are barely outpacing overall inflation, which, with consumer prices up just 1.3 percent year-over-year, remains below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target.