WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits jumped last week, pushing total applications above 300,000 for the first time in nearly three months.
Weekly applications rose 21,000 to a seasonally adjusted 313,000, the Labor Department said Wednesday. That's the highest level since the first week of September. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 6,250 to 294,000.
The increase is unlikely to raise concerns about the broader health of the job market. At least some of the rise occurred because of seasonal layoffs in businesses affected by the cold weather, such as construction. The department seeks to control for such seasonal factors but doesn't always do so perfectly.
Applications had been under 300,000 for 10 straight weeks, an unusually low level that indicates companies are laying off fewer workers.
Even with last week's increase, the overall level of applications is well below where it was 12 months ago. The four week average has tumbled 12.2 percent in the past year, and isn't that far from a 14-year low of 279,000 reached last month
"Though we have seen increases over the past three weeks in the four-week average, the trend in claims remains relatively low," Derek Lindsey, an economist at BNP Paribas, said in a note to clients.
The fall in applications has coincided with stronger job gains. Employers have added an average of 229,000 jobs a month this year, putting 2014 on pace to be strongest year for hiring since 1999. That's up from an average of 194,000 last year.
The unemployment rate has fallen to 5.8 percent, a six-year low, down from 7.2 percent a year ago.
Still, the number of people without jobs is concerning, with nearly 9 million Americans officially unemployed. That compares with 7.6 million before the recession. Yet barely a quarter of the unemployed are actually receiving unemployment aid.
That partly reflects the drop in layoffs. But it also suggests that Americans are more confident that they will find work when they do lose jobs. They also may be finding jobs faster than in the earlier stages of the recovery. As a result, they may be less likely to seek unemployment benefits. The percentage of laid off workers who apply for benefits is lower than it was just after the recession ended five years ago, economists estimate.
The total number of people receiving benefits dropped to 2.3 million in the week ending Nov. 15, the latest data available. That's the lowest level since December 2000.
Still, the job gains have yet to push up wages much, limiting the broader growth of the U.S. economy. Average hourly pay rose 3 cents in October to $24.57. That's just 2 percent above the average wage 12 months earlier and barely ahead of a 1.7 percent inflation rate.