NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing for initial unemployment insurance surged to just below the 500,000 level last week, and have climbed more than 12% over the past two weeks, the government said Thursday.
There were 496,000 initial job claims filed in the week ended Feb. 20, up 22,000 from a revised 474,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said in a weekly report. The prior week, there were 442,000 claims filed.
A consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Briefing.com expected new claims to fall to 460,000.
The 4-week moving average of initial claims was 473,750, up 6,000 from the previous week's revised average of 467,750.
"This is certainly not surprising given the very adverse weather conditions for the eastern half of the country, especially in the major population areas," said Robert Dye, a senior economist at PNC Financial Services. "Weather has a huge impact, particularly with things like construction, which remains very soft."
Over the past few weeks, the Northeast, particularly the Washington area, has been hit with snow storms, putting people out of work and resulting in a backlog of claims that the Labor Department wasn't able to process until this week.
Excluding the weather's impact, Dye would have expected initial claims to decline at "a healthy rate" of 10,000 to 20,000 last week.
Continuing claims: The government said 4,617,000 people filed continuing claims in the week ended Feb. 13, the most recent data available. That's up 6,000 from the preceding week's revised 4,611,000 claims.
The 4-week moving average for ongoing claims rose by 4,250 to 4,600,750 from the previous week's revised 4,596,500.
Continuing claims reflect people filing each week after their initial claim until the end of their standard benefits, which usually last 26 weeks. The figures do not include those people who have moved to state or federal extensions, or people whose benefits have expired.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed a $15 billion bill to spur job creation and give businesses tax breaks for hiring the unemployed, but the bill does not extend unemployment benefits.
More than 1 million people will run out of benefits after Feb. 28 if the application deadline is not extended. Lawmakers are trying to pass a short-term extension by the end of the week in order to give them time to enact a longer fix.
State-by-state: Unemployment claims in three states rose more than 1,000 for the week ended Feb. 13, the most recent data available. Claims in North Carolina jumped the most, by 5,897, which the state attributed to layoffs in the construction, furniture and mining industries.
A total of 13 states said claims fell by more than 1,000. Claims in California dropped the most, by 5,540, which the state said was due to fewer layoffs in the service industry.
Outlook: "I would expect that once we get into March and get beyond the weather-related effects, we'll see continued improvement in overall jobless claims," said Dye.
He expects employment to pick up in the next couple of months as private sector hiring continues and the government boosts its hiring of temporary census workers.
"But bear in mind that the census workers are only temporary workers," said Dye. "The government's hiring will ramp up through March, April and into May, and then it will ramp back down in the second half of the year."
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