New applications for unemployment benefits rose 21,000 last week to 373,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Yet, the rolling four-week average of jobless claims, viewed as a more reliable guide to underlying trends, dipped 2,500 to 377,500.

The number of initial unemployment claims was as high as 700,000 a week during the December 2007-June 2009 recession, which destroyed some 8.5 million jobs in the United States.

Economists consider a weekly new claims figure of less than 400,000 a sign of positive movement in the labor market.

The number of people receiving state unemployment benefits increased by 88,000 to 3.55 million during the week that ended Jan. 14, reflecting post-holiday layoffs.

State benefits generally run out after 26 weeks, but the worst economic slump since the Great Depression prompted lawmakers to approve federal emergency programs that provide jobless benefits for up to 99 weeks.

For the week ending Jan. 7, the ranks of those getting state or federal unemployment benefits declined 186,612 to 7.64 million, the Labor Department said.

The U.S. economy gained 200,000 net new jobs in December, bringing the unemployment rate down a tenth of a percentage point to 8.5 percent, its lowest level since February 2009.

The Labor Department's broader U6 unemployment rate, which includes part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs and people who have given up looking, edged down from 15.6 percent in November to 15.2 percent last month. 

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