NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- A government report Thursday brought bad news for workers and the economy: The number of unemployed Americans seeking a financial lifeline has reached its highest level in nine months.
Last week, the number of first-time filers for unemployment insurance rose for the third time in a row, to 500,000, according to a Labor Department report released Thursday.
There were 488,000 claims filed the previous week.
"This 500,000 level is very difficult, on both a psychological and semi-technical level," said Tim Quinlan, an economist at Wells Fargo.
Initial claims had been hovering in the mid- to upper-400,000s since November.
"You can sometimes dismiss a big number and say , 'Oh, it's just one week,'" Quinlan added. "But with the four-week moving average continuing higher, you can see this is just a bad trend."
The 4-week moving average of initial claims -- a number that tries to smooth out week-to-week volatility -- was 482,500, up 8,000 from the previous week. (Read 'Tired of living paycheck to paycheck')
Can the economy recover without jobs? During the last downturn around 2001, Quinlan notes, companies' finances were in bad shape -- but consumers were weathering it well.
"In this recession, we have the opposite," Quinlan said. "Companies are flush with cash, but economic data on the consumer side have been so weak."
But all that cash on corporate balance sheets means nothing to consumers unless companies start hiring, Quinlan said.
"Everyone's in this mode of wait and see for a sustainable recovery," Quinlan said. "But that concern will be a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don't create jobs."
Continuing claims: The government also said 4.48 million people filed continuing claims in the week ended Aug. 7, the most recent data available. That's down 13,000 from the preceding week.
Continuing claims reflect people who file each week after their initial claim until the end of their standard benefits, which usually last 26 weeks. The figures do not include those who have moved to state or federal extensions, nor people who have exhausted their benefits but are still out of a job.
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