WASHINGTON — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week, but the level of applications remains too high to signal a pickup in hiring.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications fell to a seasonally adjusted 386,000. That’s down from 392,000 the previous week, which was revised up. The four-week average, which smooths week-to-week fluctuations, was mostly unchanged at 386,750.
“Jobless claims are still too high and show that employment growth is slowing and no progress is being made,” said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.
Separately, the Commerce Department said the expanded at a 1.9 percent annual rate in the first three months of the year. The third and final estimate for growth in the January-March quarter was unchanged from the government’s previous estimate.
Most economists say growth has likely stayed roughly the same or possibly weakened since then. A sluggish job market and diminished consumer and business confidence have kept the economy from accelerating in the April-June quarter.
Weekly unemployment applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. When applications rise above 375,000, it generally means that hiring isn’t strong enough to rapidly lower the unemployment rate.
Applications fell steadily over the winter, and monthly job gains soared. But since then applications have edged up and hiring has slowed, raising concerns about the recovery.
Employers added an average of only 73,000 jobs per month in April and May. That’s much lower than the average of 226,000 added in the first three months of this year.
The unemployment rate increased to 8.2 percent in May, up from 8.1 percent in April.
The number of people continuing to receive benefits, meanwhile, rose to 5.9 million in the week ended June 9, the latest data available. That’s about 70,000 more than the previous week.
Other recent indicators have painted a mixed picture of the economy.
A closely watched private survey released this week showed consumer confidence fell in June for the fourth straight month. The Conference Board said worries about the job market outweighed lower gas prices and steady improvement in the housing market.
And U.S. manufacturing activity, which has helped drive growth since the recession ended three years ago, has weakened. Factories produced less in May than April, the Federal Reserve said this month. Automakers cut back on output for the first time in six months. In June, manufacturing activity barely grew in the New York region and contracted sharply in the Philadelphia area, according to surveys by regional Federal Reserve banks.
Also affecting the U.S. economy is Europe’s debt crisis, which has dampened demand for American exports. And consumers barely increased their retail spending in April and May.
But there have been hopeful signs.
U.S. factories received more orders for long-lasting manufactured goods in May, while a key measure of business investment plans rose.
And the housing market is looking a little better. Home sales are up from last year, home prices are rising in most cities and homebuilders are planning to break ground on more projects in the next 12 months.
Still, the Federal Reserve has cut its forecast for the year. It now expects growth of just 1.9 percent to 2.4 percent for 2012. That’s half a percentage point lower than the range it estimated in April. The Fed also says unemployment won’t fall much further this year than it has.