Employers appear to be laying off workers again as the economic recovery weakens. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits reached the half-million mark last week for the first time since November.
It was the third straight week that first-time jobless claims rose. The upward trend suggests the private sector may report a net loss of jobs in August for the first time this year.
Initial claims rose by 12,000 last week to 500,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Construction firms are letting go of more workers as the housing sector slumps and federal stimulus spending on public works projects winds down. State and local governments are also cutting jobs to close large budget gaps.
The layoffs add to growing fears that the economic recovery is slowing and the country could slip back into a recession.
"The rise in initial jobless claims over the past three weeks makes it difficult to maintain confidence in the recovery and suggests the labor market is backtracking," Ryan Sweet, an economist at Moody's Analytics, wrote in a note to clients.
Stocks tumbled on the fear of more layoffs and weak job growth. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 185 points in midday trading. Broader indexes also declined.
Jobless claims declined steadily last year from a peak of 651,000 in March 2009 as the economy recovered from the worst downturn since the 1930s. They hit a low of 427,000 in July before rising steadily over the past six weeks.
In a healthy economy, jobless claims usually drop below 400,000.
"This is obviously a disappointing number that shows ongoing weakness in the job market," said Robert Dye, senior economist at the PNC Financial Services Group. (Continues here)