The number of people newly registering for unemployment benefits reached its highest level in the past 16 years last week, according to figures from the Labor Department.
New applications increased to a seasonally adjusted 542,000, much greater than the figure of 505,000 that had been forecast by economists.
That means that a total of 4.012 million Americans are receiving jobless benefits – the highest number seen since 1982.
Experts say these numbers do not bode well for the job market and for the economy in general. In October, unemployment reached 6.5 percent and the Federal Reserve predicts the rate could rise to 7.6 percent in 2009.
"With retail sales collapsing, industrial production plunging, export orders off a cliff and commercial property just starting what will be a very steep downturn, there is nowhere to hide," economist Ian Shepherdson told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, President Bush has indicated that he would support extending unemployment benefits to help offset the challenges posed by the current job climate.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure – which would lengthen the benefits period by at least seven weeks – today.