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MW: U.S. jobless claims inflated by hurricanes
First-time filings hit highest level seen in seven years

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- U.S. weekly jobless claims remained at their highest level in seven years, Labor Department data showed Thursday, as people in the hurricane-hit states of Louisiana and Texas filed for benefits.

For the week ended Sept. 27, seasonally adjusted first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose 1,000, to stand at 497,000 -- the highest since late September 2001. The higher number reflects claims following the damage wreaked by Hurricane Gustav in Louisiana and Hurricane Ike in Texas.
Without the hurricane-related claims, initial filings would have been about 439,000 last week, the Labor Department said.
The four-week average of claims -- a measure of the underlying employment trend -- also increased, up 11,500 to 474,000. This marked the highest since October 2001.
Meanwhile, the number of people continuing to claim benefits remained elevated, many workers' difficulty in finding jobs. Continuing claims have been above 3 million since mid-April.
For the week ended Sept. 20, continuing claims grew by 48,000 to reach 3.59 million and the four-week average of continuing claims also rose, increasing 46,750 to 3.53 million. Continuing claims and the four-week average of continuing claims thus hit the highest respective levels since September and October of 2003.
The Labor Department also said that the insured unemployment rate, which represents the portion of all workers covered by unemployment insurance who are collecting benefits, held steady at 2.7% in the week ended Sept. 20.
The spike in claims comes as Washington continues work on the massive financial-rescue plan to help stabilize markets and the U.S. economy. The Senate approved a plan Wednesday evening, and the House must still take up the proposal.
The claims data also come on the eve of pivotal Labor Department data on the nation's nonfarm payrolls and the unemployment rate for September.