The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits increased by 16,000 to 360,000 in the first week of July, the Labor Department reported Thursday morning. Analysts had expected a slightly lower number.

Claims on unemployment insurance are seen as an indicator of the strength of the labor market and a proxy for layoff numbers. Thursday’s report suggests little change in the overall slow improvement of the outlook for U.S. workers, with 2.8 million unemployed Americans now receiving benefits. The four-week moving average of seasonally adjusted jobless claims is down from 376,000 a year ago to a 351,750 in the latest reading.

The unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent in June, according to a Friday report from the Labor Department, and nearly 12 million Americans are looking for work. Of the unemployed, 4.3 million have been looking for work for longer than 27 weeks.

Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Tuesday indicates that the number of job openings is gradually increasing, but that it’s a low number of layoffs and other job separations rather than more hiring that is driving the improvement. There were 4.3 million job separations – consisting of quits, layoffs and discharges – in May, far below the near-five million monthly mark reached before the financial crisis in 2008. Hires remained depressed at 4.4 million. The rate of workers quitting their jobs also remained at least 20 percent below its healthy level, suggesting that people with work perceive the labor market as dangerous.

The overall employment picture remains one of a badly damaged labor market showing a slow, but persistent, recovery from the recession.