The number of first-time jobless benefit claims rose to the highest level in 26 years as companies shed jobs in the midst of a steep economic recession.

The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday, initial jobless claims increased by 62,000 to 589,000 in the week ended Jan. 17, from a revised 527,000 the prior week.

Initial claims surpassed forecasts of economists who expected them to rise to 543,000 from 524,000 initially reported for the prior week, according to a Bloomberg News survey.

The total claims reported today, match a figure released four weeks ago, of the highest in 26 years.

Employers cut a total of 2.6 million jobs in the U.S. in 2008, according to Bloomberg. Further reductions are expected for the current year.