Storm related jobless claims rise but underlying strength seen

The number of Americans who have lost jobs from a string of devastating hurricanes rose to 599,700 last week as the effects of &to=' target=_blank>Katrina and Rita continued to be felt months after they slammed ashore.

The Labor Department attributed 7,000 claims last week to Katrina, which struck near New Orleans on Aug. 29 and Rita, which hit near the Texas-Louisiana border on Sept. 24. Wilma, which hit Florida on Oct. 24, resulted in an additional 700 claims last week.

The 7,700 total of storm-related claims was the lowest weekly figure since the government began tracking the hurricanes' impact on the labor market in the first week of September. Total claims for unemployment benefits increased by 6,000 last week to 327,000, a figure seen as indicating a healthy labor market.

The figure for total jobless claims was slightly higher than the 318,000 claims that analysts had been expecting. The figure still was viewed as consistent with their belief that the labor market remains healthy as the economy continues to grow at a solid pace.

The four-week moving average for claims, which smooths out the weekly volatility, edged down slightly to 322,500 last week, a level which Michele Girard, an economist at RBS Greenwich Capital, said "points to continued healthy underlying labor market conditions."

On Wall Street, stocks extended their losses for a second day. The Dow Jones industrial average falling 55.79 points to close at 10,755.12.

Part of last week's overall increase of 6,000 jobless claims was attributed to additional workers filing for benefits after the Thanksgiving holidays, when unemployment claims offices were on a short work week.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, a Valhalla, New York, research firm, said the claims report was still pointing to monthly gains in excess of 200,000 in payroll jobs.

Last Friday, the government reported that U.S. businesses hired 215,000 new workers in November, the biggest gain in four months and a sign that the labor market was regaining its footing after a two-month lull reflecting hurricane disruptions.

The surge in job growth led President George W. Bush to declare that the country's "economic horizon is as bright as it's been in a long time." Bush is hoping that the rebounding economy will bolster consumer confidence and help him combat the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency.

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