By Christopher S. Rugaber -- AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people receiving jobless benefits exceeded 6 million for the first time, the government reported Thursday, and housing construction unexpectedly plunged to its second-lowest level on record — fresh evidence that the recession is far from over.
Analysts expect the labor market to remain weak for the most of this year with companies reluctant to hire new workers until an economic recovery is well under way. And the latest housing data show the slump in that market, a major factor in triggering the recession, has yet to hit bottom.
Still, economists found some silver linings. For the second straight week the number of people filing new benefits claims dropped more than expected, and single-family home construction, while depressed, appears to be leveling off.
The Labor Department said Thursday that its tally of initial unemployment claims dropped to a seasonally adjusted 610,000 from a revised 663,000 the previous week. That was significantly below analysts' expectations of 655,000 and the lowest level since late January.
A Labor Department analyst said a jump in layoffs that usually occurs during the spring holidays didn't take place, which magnified the drop in new claims. Economists said holiday-related distortion in the numbers made it difficult to determine whether the labor market is stabilizing. Many remain bearish.
Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said initial claims are likely to increase in coming weeks, though likely at a slower pace than earlier this year.
Initial jobless claims reflect the pace of layoffs by companies and are considered a timely, if volatile, measure of the economy. While declining, they remain much higher than a year ago when claims stood at 369,000.
Finding a new job is difficult for those who have been laid off. The total number of people remaining on the jobless benefit rolls rose 172,000, topping 6 million for the first time. That's the highest on records dating from 1967. The figures for continuing claims lag initial claims by one week.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said construction of new homes and apartments dropped 10.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 510,000 units, the second lowest pace on records that go back 50 years.
The decline was worse than economists expected and February activity also was revised lower. Applications for building permits, considered a good barometer of future activity, also fell in March to an annual rate of 513,000 units, lower than the 550,000 economists expected.
But the single-family sector actually stabilized in March at an annual rate of 358,000 units, the same as February. Two months of stability could signal that single-family home building is finding a bottom although at a very low level, analysts said.
On Wall Street, stocks rose modestly after being mixed for much of the morning. The Dow Jones industrial average added about 7 points in early afternoon trading, and broader indices also gained.
The Labor Department also said an additional 2.1 million people were receiving benefits under an extended unemployment compensation program enacted by Congress last year, as of March 28, the latest data available. That provides an additional 20 to 33 weeks on top of the 26 weeks typically provided by the states.
Employers have cut 5.1 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, as they try to slash costs while consumers and businesses spend less. The department said earlier this month that companies cut a net total of 663,000 jobs in March, sending the unemployment rate to 8.5 percent, the highest in 25 years.
The Federal Reserve expects the unemployment rate will probably "rise more steeply into early next year before flattening out at a high level over the rest of the year," according to minutes from the central bank's March meeting released earlier this month. Many private economists expect the rate will hit 10 percent by year's end.
Among the states, Michigan saw the largest jump in claims for the week ending April 4, an increase of more than 5,400 due to layoffs in the auto industry. Missouri, Texas, New Jersey and Pennsylvania reported the next largest increases.
California had the biggest drop in recipients of more than 4,700, which it said was due to a shorter work week and fewer layoffs in the trade and manufacturing industries. Ohio, Alabama, Florida and Wisconsin had the next largest drops.
More job losses were announced this week. UBS AG, Switzerland's largest bank, said it expects a first-quarter loss of about $1.75 billion and will cut 8,700 jobs worldwide by the end of next year. ArcelorMittal SA, the world's largest steel maker, said it will idle a plant in Indiana and lay off about 400 workers. Credit card company Discover Financial Services said it plans to cut 500 jobs next month, or 4 percent of its work force.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.