U.S. jobless claims at near 5-year low

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The average number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits over the past month fell to the lowest level since March 2008, a sign that the job market is healing.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000 in the week ended Dec. 22. The four-week average, a less-volatile measure, fell to a nearly five-year low of 356,750.

Still, the Christmas holiday may have distorted the figures. A department spokesman said many state unemployment offices were closed Monday and Tuesday and could not provide exact data. That forced the government to rely on estimates.

Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have mostly fluctuated this year between 360,000 and 390,000. At the same time, employers have added an average of 151,000 jobs a month in the first 11 months of 2012. That's just enough to slowly reduce the unemployment rate.

Economists were mildly encouraged by the decline in applications. But they emphasized that the figures are volatile around the holidays. They were also distorted until recent weeks by superstorm Sandy.

The decline in unemployment applications suggests companies are not yet slashing jobs because of concerns over the budget stalemate in Washington and the looming "fiscal cliff" deadline.

The total number of people receiving benefits rose 73,000 to 5.48 million in the week ended Dec. 8, the latest data available.

That includes about 2.1 million people who have been out of work for at least six months and are receiving extended benefits paid for by the federal government. The program is ending at the end of the year. That means those recipients will receive their final checks next week, unless an extension is granted.

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