Unemployment Benefit Applications Jump to 399,000

By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER | January 12, 2012 | 8:40 AM EST

In this Dec. 12, 2011, people wait to talk with potential employers at a job fair sponsored by National Career Fairs, in New York. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits dropped to its lowest level since April 2008, continuing a downward trend that reflects a strengthening job market. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people applying for weekly unemployment benefits spiked last week, largely because companies let go of thousands of workers after the holiday season.

The Labor Department says applications jumped by 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 399,000, the most in six weeks. That followed three months of steady declines that brought applications to the lowest level in more than three years.

Applications typically soar in the first two weeks of the year. That's because companies are letting go of temporary workers brought on to help during the holidays. The department attempts to adjust for those patterns, but the data can be volatile.

The four-week average, which smooths fluctuations, also rose, to 381,750. It had fallen to a three-and-a-half-year low in the previous week.