By Chris Isidore@CNNMoneyFebruary 21, 2013: 8:49 AM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)
First-time claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, according to a government report that showed continued weakness in the job market.
The Labor Department report showed 362,000 Americans filed for jobless benefits in the latest week, up from 342,00 the previous week, when claims may have been limited by snow storms in several states.
The average number of people seeking help over the past four weeks totaled 360,750, up 8,000 from the four-week average the previous week. Economists prefer to look at the four-week average to smooth out the impact of short-term blips that can be caused by weather and other special events.
Overall, average claims are down from where they were a year ago, but the improvement has been very gradual. They've largely been hovering in the 350,000 to 400,000 range -- a level that seems to be consistent with the U.S. economy, which has added about 180,000 jobs each month. But that's barely enough to keep up with population growth and not enough to make significant improvement in reducing the unemployment rate.
In addition to counting first-time claims, the Labor Department also tracks people who have filed for their second week or more of benefits. The latest data show 3.1 million people filed continuing claims during the week ended February 9, an 11,000 increase from a week earlier, but down nearly 8% from those receiving longer-term help a year ago.