WASHINGTON - The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits last week rose 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 304,000. Jobless claims continue to be near pre-recession levels despite the slight increase.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, fell 4,750 to 312,000. That average has fallen from 357,500 applications over the past 12 months. It is the lowest four-week average since October 2007, just two months before the Great Recession started.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The current level of claims suggests that employers are holding on to their workers with the expectation of stronger economic growth ahead.
The modest level of claims occurs during the government's survey week for the April employment report. It indicates job gains of "200,000-plus" this month, said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.
Hiring has accelerated as applications for jobless aid have fallen.
Employers added 192,000 jobs in March, according to a separate government report. That follows gains of 197,000 in February, as the unemployment rate stayed at 6.7 percent for the second straight months.
Severe winter storms in January and December shut down factories, kept shoppers away from stores, and reduced home buying. That reduced hiring and overall economic growth. Employers added 129,000 jobs in January and only 84,000 in December.
More jobs and higher incomes will be needed to spur better overall economic growth. For now, economists expect the bad winter weather contributed to weak growth of 1.5 percent to 2 percent at an annual rate in the January-March quarter. But as the weather improves, most analysts expect growth to rebound to near 3 percent.