WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits likely rose last week, though not by enough to alter the picture of an improving job market. Economists forecast that applications rose 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 354,000, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EST Thursday. The department said last week that applications for benefits in the previous week fell 27,000 to 341,000. Excluding a few weeks in January that were affected by seasonal distortions, that's the lowest level in nearly five years. Thursday's figure could be inflated by the huge snowstorm that hit the Northeast early this month. Most applications for unemployment aid are filed by phone or online. People who can't work because of the weather are eligible for benefits and could file applications without having to visit an unemployment office. Applications are a proxy for layoffs. When they fall, it suggests that companies are cutting fewer jobs. The overall trend in benefits applications has been downward in recent months. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile gauge, has fallen nearly 9 percent since early November. 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.