The labor market took yet another hit as first-time applications for state unemployment benefits climbed 9,000 to a seasonally-adjusted 654,000 in the week ending March 7, the Labor Department said Thursday. "The numbers continue to worsen," said Michael Gregory, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets. "While retail sales were better than expected last month, according to the Commerce Department report, "it's hard to believe spending will hold up" with jobless claims so high, he told Bloomberg News. The total number of people remaining on the benefits roll after drawing at least one week of aid topped analysts predictions, jumping 193,000 to a record 5.31 million in the week ending Feb. 28, the most recent week for which data is available. The insured unemployment rate now sits at 4 percent, the highest reading since June of 1983, according to a Reuters report. The four-week moving average of new jobless claims, which can sometimes smooth volatility, rose to 650,000 from 643,250 the week before. The largest increases in initial claims were in New York -- where 16,481 people filed a claim in the week ending Feb, 28 -- California, Oregon, Georgia and Wisconsin. The largest decreases were seen in Missouri -- where claims dropped by 3,350 -- Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida and New Mexico. Companies across the nation continue to shrink work forces. The ADP National Employment Report released last week showed private companies cut 697,000 jobs in February, alone. Write to Kelly Curran at kelly.curran@housingwire.com. Disclosure: The author held no relevant investment positions when this story was published. Indirect holdings may exist via mutual fund investments. HW reporters and writers follow a strict disclosure policy, the first in the mortgage trade