CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER AP Economics Writer WASHINGTON
New jobless claims fell more than expected for the second straight week, but the number of Americans continuing to receive unemployment insurance benefits rose above 6 million for the first time. Analysts expect the labor market to remain weak for the most of this year, as many employers are reluctant to hire until an economic recovery is well under way. And fresh housing data show the slump in that market, a major factor in triggering the recession, is not yet over. The Labor Department said this morning that its tally of initial unemployment claims dropped to a seasonally adjusted 610,000 from a revised 663,000 the previous week. That was significantly below analysts' expectations of 655,000 and the lowest level since late January. The four-week average of claims, which smooths out volatility, fell 8,500 to 651,000. Initial jobless claims reflect the pace of layoffs by companies and are considered a timely, if volatile, measure of the economy. While declining, they remain much higher than a year ago when claims stood at 369,000. Finding a new job is difficult for those who have been laid off. The total number of people remaining on the jobless benefit rolls rose 172,000, topping 6 million for the first time. That's the highest on records dating from 1967. The figures for continuing claims lag initial claims by one week. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said construction of new homes and apartments dropped 10.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 510,000 units, the second lowest pace on records that go back 50 years. The decline was worse than economi s t s expected and February activity also was revised lower. Applications for building permits, considered a good barometer of future activity, also fell in March to an annual rate of 513,000 units, lower than the 550,000 economists expected.