U.S. job cuts surged 28 percent in January to the highest level in four months as retailers and financial firms trimmed payrolls, according to a private group's survey released Thursday.

Employers announced 53,486 layoffs in January, up 28 percent from 41,785 in December, according to the latest report on downsizing activity from outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. It was 39 percent higher than January 2011, when employers announced 38,519 planned cuts.

However, it is not unusual to see a job-cut surge to start the year.

The report noted that historically, January is the heaviest job-cut month, averaging 101,084 announced layoffs between 1993 and 2011.

Retailers and financial firms dominated the latest round of layoffs with 12,426 cuts and 7,611 cuts, respectively.

The retail job losses are unrelated to the departure of seasonal workers, which typically are not announced or reported as job cuts.  Rather, the cuts are related to restructurings, store closings and other cost-cutting measures.

For the second consecutive month, the government sector saw relatively few job cuts, with these employers announcing just 3,021 layoffs in January. That was up slightly from 2,183 in December.  The two low job-cut months is undoubtedly a welcome trend in a sector that averaged 15,255 job cuts per month in 2011 and announced a total of 325,319 job cut in the 24-month period ending in December.

Of course, it is far too early to say whether we will continue to see low job-cut figures in government. It is highly unlikely, considering that many cities and states continue to struggle with budget deficits, said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Chicago-based Challenger. As a result, we expect government layoffs to be heavy again this year.