Weekly applications increased last week by 4,000 from the previous week's level of 363,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The previous week was revised higher from an initial reading of 359,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, was unchanged at 375,000.
Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc., said the figures are "consistent with a soft but by no means collapsing labour market."
Unemployment benefit applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. When they consistently fall below 375,000, it typically indicates that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Applications have mostly stayed near or above that level since the spring, coinciding with a weak stretch of hiring. The government reports Friday on September hiring and unemployment.
There are only two employment reports left before Election Day, so Friday's figures could have a major impact on the presidential campaign. The report comes just two days after President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney engaged in a debate focused largely on the economy and job growth — the top issues on most voters' minds this year.
Republicans have accused Obama of failing to steer the economy out of a deep recession, setting up the health of the U.S. economy as a pivotal issue in the 2012 election.
The economy has added an average of just 87,400 jobs a month since April, down from an average of 226,000 jobs a month in the January-March quarter.
Economists predict employers added 111,000 jobs last month, only slightly more than the 96,000 jobs added in August. The unemployment rate is expected to tick up to 8.2 per cent from 8.1 per cent in August. The rate has been above 8 per cent for the past three and a half years.
Thursday's report showed that the total number of people receiving unemployment aid fell slightly. About 5.09 million people received unemployment aid in the week ending Sept. 15, the latest figures available. That's 85,000 lower than the previous week.
There have been some hopeful signs that hiring may improve.
Payroll processor ADP said Wednesday that private employers added 162,000 jobs last month, ahead of economists' estimates.
Growth in hiring helped U.S. factories expand in September for the first time since May, according to the Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing survey released Monday.
Job creation at service companies slowed in September, according to a separate survey from the ISM released Wednesday. Still, a surge in consumer demand helped those companies grow at the fastest pace in six months. It that growth continues, hiring will likely pick up.
A key problem is the economy is not growing fast enough to generate much hiring. Growth slowed to a tepid annual rate of 1.3 per cent in the April-June quarter. Most economists see growth staying below 2 per cent in the second half of the year.