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First-time claims for unemployment benefits took an unexpected leap for the week ending May 11, rising to a seasonally adjusted 360,000, the Department of Labor reported. That's 32,000 above the previous week's revised figure of 328,000, originally reported as 323,000. It was the biggest climb since the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy boosted the number of layoffs in November. For the comparable week of 2012, first-time claims were 373,000.
The four-week running average, a better measure that flattens volatility in the weekly numbers, rose slightly to 339,250.
It will take another few weeks' worth of reports to determine whether this is just a one-week fluke in numbers that have been mostly trending down this year or the first indications that the federal budget sequester is starting to have the impact many experts have predicted. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated a possible loss from the sequester of 750,000 jobs this year. Other analysts say more like 300,000. Labor Department analysts say they could find no links to the sequester associated with the increase in claims.
During the best 12 months of the Clinton administration, first-time claims averaged about 280,000 a week.
Total claims in both state and federally funded unemployment benefits continued their downward slide, dropping for the week ending April 27 to 4,843,806, a decrease of 30,720 from the previous week. For the comparable week of 2012, there were 6,273,508 persons claiming benefits in all programs. That drop reflects the number of people getting jobs as well as the number who have exhausted their benefits.
Less than 40 percent of the unemployed are now receiving benefits compared with around 70 percent when the impact of the Great Recession was at its worst. Some 1.77 million Americans are receiving federally funded benefits under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation provisions put in place because of the recession. Those receiving EUC benefits are seeing their checks slashed at least 10 percent because of the sequester. In California, the cut is 17.5 percent. The cuts don't affect those receiving state benefits, which is the category that all the approved first-time applicants fall into. But the sequester is also reducing the amount of administrative assistance state employment programs provide.
Unemployment claims are just one metric of the health of the labor market. Others—the quality and pay levels of jobs being added to the economy, for instance—rarely make the news. For instance, the headlines never point out that the monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—which showed a seasonally adjusted gain of 165,000 jobs for April—counts both full- and part-timers in its tally of new hires. Get a 10-hour a week position at minimum wage and that is counting in the headline total the same as a 40-hour a week position with full benefits and a livable income.