By Eric Morath and Jeff Bater Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)-The number of U.S. workers seeking new unemployment benefits rose last week, but the amount remains well below the level of applications seen earlier this year, hinting that the labor market is stabilizing. Initial jobless claims rose by 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 381,000 in the week ended Dec. 24, the Labor Department said Thursday. It was the fourth straight week that claims were below the 400,000 mark, a positive sign as economists generally believe claims must remain consistently below that level to signal a real turnaround. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had forecast claims would rise by 8,000 to 372,000. For the week ended Dec. 17, claims were revised up to 366,000 from an originally reported 364,000. The four-week moving average of new jobless claims, which smoothes out volatile weekly figures, decreased last week by 5,750 to 375,000, the lowest measure since the week of June 7, 2008. Even with the recent downward trend in new jobless claims, unemployment remains a significant problem. Earlier this month, the government reported that the unemployment rate for November fell to 8.6%, the lowest level since March 2009 but still well above historic norms. The Federal Reserve predicts an unemployment rate in a range of 8.5% to 8.7% in 2012 as Americans head to the polls for the presidential election. The central bank has said it would consider additional efforts to prop up the economy to meet its mandate to keep unemployment in check. In a negative sign for next year's jobs outlook, retail giant Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) said this week that it plans to close up to 120 stores in 2012 after disappointing sales this holiday season. The move would likely result in mass layoffs, but the company didn't detail job losses in its announcements. The Labor report Thursday showed the number of continuing unemployment benefit claims--those drawn by workers for more than a week--increased by 34,000 to 3,601,000 in the week ended Dec. 17. Continuing claims are reported with a one-week lag. The unemployment rate for workers with unemployment insurance for the week ending Dec. 17 was 2.9%, compared with 2.8% the prior week. The state-by-state breakdown in initial jobless claims, which is also released with a one-week lag, showed Pennsylvania with the biggest decrease in initial claims, down 3,667 as there were fewer layoffs in the construction, plastic and rubber, and education sectors. California saw the biggest jump in claims the week ended Dec. 17, up by 4,754 due to layoffs in the service sector. A Labor Department official said there was nothing unusual about the latest state-level claims data, but did say data for seven states were estimated due to the holiday. The Labor Department report on jobless claims can be accessed at: http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/eta/ui/current.htm -By Eric Morath and Jeff Bater; Dow Jones Newswires; 202-862-9279; firstname.lastname@example.org Karen Talley contributed to this article.