WASHINGTON – More Americans than projected filed applications for unemployment insurance last week, indicating firings remain elevated as the recovery has moderated.

Initial jobless claims climbed by 19,000 to 479,000 in the week ended July 31, the most since April and exceeding the highest estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, Labor Department figures showed Thursday. The number of people receiving unemployment benefits dropped, while those getting extended payments rose.

A cooling economy means employers will resist taking on more staff in coming months, raising the risk consumer spending will weaken further.

“There really is no upside momentum in the labor market, and that’s a critical long-term determinant of where the economy is going,” said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA in New York. “People just aren’t getting jobs.”

Meanwhile, retailers reported July sales gains that missed analysts’ estimates as consumers reduced spending before the back-to-school season.

Sales at 30 chains climbed 3 percent, less than the 3.2 percent average of analyst projections, Retail Metrics Inc. said. It marked the fourth straight month that sales have trailed estimates. J.C. Penney Co. sales fell 0.6 percent, short of expectations for a 3.5 percent gain.

Economists forecast jobless claims would fall to 455,000, according to the median of 43 projections. Estimates ranged from 444,000 to 470,000. The government revised the prior week’s total to 460,000 from a previously reported 457,000.

There were no special factors influencing the report, a Labor Department spokesman told reporters as the figures were released. The timing of summer factory shutdowns caused claims to gyrate last month as fewer plants closed than was the case in prior years. That effect probably washed out of the data last week, the spokesman said.

The government estimated the number of claims would drop by about 30,000 last week before seasonal adjustments, and instead they fell by about 14,000, the spokesman said.

The economy generated 90,000 private jobs in July, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed before today’s jobs report from the Labor Department. Total payrolls probably fell by 65,000, reflecting the dismissal of temporary government workers as the decennial census wound down.

“Claims have been a poor predictor of private payrolls this year as the amount of churning in the labor market is higher in this recovery,” Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York, said in a note to clients. “A higher level of initial claims is still consistent with job growth.”

The four-week moving average of claims, a less-volatile measure, increased to 458,500 last week from 453,250, Thursday’s report showed.

The number of people continuing to collect unemployment benefits dropped by 34,000 to 4.54 million in the week ended July 24 from 4.57 million the prior week.

The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

Those who’ve used up traditional benefits and are now collecting emergency and extended payments increased by about 258,000 to 3.92 million in the week ended July 17.

President Barack Obama on July 22 signed into law a measure restoring unemployment benefits that were cut off. The bill provides retroactive aid to those whose checks were cut off when benefits expired June 2, while extending through November a program offering up to 99 weeks of assistance.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Monday that rising wages will probably spur household spending in the next few quarters.

While there is “a considerable way to go” for a full recovery, “rising demand from households and businesses should help sustain growth,” Bernanke said in a speech in Charleston, S.C. “The slow recovery in the labor market and the attendant uncertainty about job prospects are weighing on household confidence and spending,” he said.

United Technologies Corp. said it expects restructuring actions from the first half of the year to result in job cuts of about 2,400 hourly and salaried employees. The maker of Carrier, Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky products had eliminated 900 jobs as of June 30 and is targeting most of the rest of the reductions for the remainder of this year and 2011.

Automakers are hiring after last year’s bailouts and restructurings. Ford, the nation’s No. 2 automaker, plans to add 27 percent more United Auto Workers positions at its U.S. plants than originally planned, citing flexible labor contracts that reduced the cost of employing union members.

Ford said it will add 1,975 jobs, 416 more than originally agreed to, by 2012 to do work traditionally done by suppliers. The jobs at nine U.S. plants will be filled by a mix of idled Ford workers and new hires, Jennifer Flake, a spokeswoman, said Wednesday.