AP News

Ahead of the Bell: US Unemployment Benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits last week likely stayed at a level that is consistent with only modest hiring.

Economists forecast that applications were unchanged at 370,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EST Thursday.

Prior to last week, weekly applications had fallen for three straight weeks. That reversed a surge one month ago caused by Superstorm Sandy. People can claim unemployment benefits if their workplaces are forced to close and they aren't paid.

Before the storm, weekly applications had fluctuated this year between 360,000 and 390,000. That has coincided with only modest job gains and gradual declines in the unemployment rate.

Still, the storm had little effect on overall hiring in November. Employers added 146,000 jobs last month, the government said last week. That's about the same as the average monthly gain of 150,000 in the past year.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent — a four-year low — from 7.9 percent in October. But the decline was mostly because more people without jobs gave up looking for work. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively searching.

The department also said Tuesday that employers posted the most open jobs in four months in October. That suggests hiring could pick up a bit in the coming months.

But some companies may postpone hiring this month because of concerns over the "fiscal cliff," the tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect early next year. If all the changes in the cliff take effect for a full year, economists forecast it would push the economy into recession.

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are negotiating a potential deficit-reduction deal that would avert the cliff. The goal is to complete an agreement by the end of the year, though talks could continue into January. Most economists say if the tax increases and spending cuts take effect temporarily, while a replacement deal is in sight, the impact on the economy would be minor.

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