WASHINGTON — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose 20,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 362,000, though it remains at a level that suggests slow but steady improvement in the job market.
The Labor Department said the four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 8,000 to 360,750, the highest in six weeks. A spokesman said snowstorms in the Northeast did not affect the total.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Even with last week’s jump, they have trended downward recently. The four-week average has declined 7.5 percent since mid-November and fell to a five-year low three weeks ago.
Last week’s increase puts applications for unemployment benefits back in the 360,000-to-390,000 range, where they have fluctuated since early last year.
Since then, employers have added an average of 181,000 jobs a month.
In January, the economy added 157,000 jobs. The US unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent in December.
Economists think the rate will slowly decline if hiring continues at last year’s monthly pace of 180,000.
The unemployment rate fell 0.7 percentage point in 2012.
A total of 5.6 million people received unemployment benefits in the week that ended Feb. 2, the latest period for which figures are available. That’s about 300,000 fewer than in the previous week.