WASHINGTON - The number of newly laid-off people signing up for unemployment benefits rose sharply for the second straight week, suggesting that jobs are still hard to come by even as the economic recovery gains traction.

The Labor Department reported yesterday that first-time requests for jobless benefits rose by 24,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 484,000, the highest level since late February. Economists had predicted claims would fall.

It marked the second week claims took an unexpected leap. Even with the increases over the past two weeks, the trend in claims has been slowly drifting downward. Fewer people overall have been seeking unemployment insurance as the job market recovers.

For instance, for the same week a year ago, first-time claims totaled 609,000, compared with the current 484,000. Applications for jobless claims peaked during the recession at 651,000 in late March 2009.

Economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, was still disappointed with the latest figures. He had hoped that claims would be much lower by now - in the range of 400,000 to 425,000.

"What this tells me is that the labor market isn't necessarily deteriorating further, but it is not improving at the pace we hoped it would," Naroff said.

The number of people continuing to draw benefits moved higher, rising to 4.64 million from 4.57 million.- AP

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