WASHINGTON The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits jumped 20,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 362,000, though it remained at a level consistent with modest hiring.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 8,000 to 360,750, the highest in six weeks. A department spokesman said heavy snowstorms in the Northeast didn't affect the total.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have trended downward recently. The four-week average has declined 7.5 percent since mid-November and fell to a five-year low three weeks ago.
Still, the increase puts applications back in the 360,000-to-390,000 range, where they have fluctuated since early last year.
At the same time, job growth has picked up. Employers added an average of 200,000 jobs a month from November through January. That's up from about 150,000 in the previous three months.
In January, the economy added 157,000 jobs, the government said this month. And revisions showed that employers added an average of 181,000 jobs a month last year, up from an earlier estimate of 153,000.
Still, the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent in December. Economists think the rate will slowly decline if hiring continues at last year's monthly pace of 180,000. The rate fell 0.7 percentage point in 2012.
The economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the October-December quarter, hurt by a sharp cut in defense spending, fewer exports and sluggish growth in company stockpiles. That was much worse than the 3.1 percent growth recorded in the July-September period.
But economists predict that the October-December growth figure will be revised in coming months to show a small increase, after more positive data about last quarter has been reported. Economists now estimate that the economy expanded at an annual rate of about 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter.
Growth will likely pick up a bit in the January-March quarter to an annual rate of 1.5 percent, analysts forecast. That's better than the fourth quarter but below last year's expansion of 2.2 percent.