WASHINGTON - The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell 23,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 340,000, a level consistent with solid job growth.
The less volatile four-week average ticked down just 500 to 339,500, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's close to the five-year low of 338,000 reached during the first week of May. The four-week average is 9 percent lower than in November.
"The underlying story in jobless claims continues to be one of gradual improvement," Bricklin Dwyer, an economist at BNP Paribas, wrote in a research report.
In this April 4 file photo, people line up for entry to a job fair in Montpelier, Vt. The Labor Department reports on the number of Americans who applied for unemployment benefits last week on Thursday.
Unemployment claims are a proxy for layoffs. The decline in claims has coincided with steady job growth over the past six months. Since November, employers have added an average 208,000 jobs a month. That's up from just 138,000 jobs a month during the previous six months.
Still, much of the improvement has come from fewer layoffs, not robust hiring. Employers laid off just 1.7 million workers in March, only slightly above the 12-year low reached in January. Overall hiring, however, remains far below pre-recession levels.
More than 4.7 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits the week that ended May 4, down 23 percent from nearly 6.2 million a year earlier.
The United States still has 2.6 million fewer jobs than it did when the recession began in December 2007. The unemployment has fallen to a four-year low of 7.5 percent, down from 10 percent in October 2009. Some of the decrease is because many people have given up looking for work. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively searching for a job.
For hiring to strengthen enough to lower the unemployment rate to a more normal level of between 5.5 percent and 6 percent, companies must gain more confidence in the economy. But some may be hesitant to add workers because of concerns of deep federal spending cuts and tax increases.