Jobless benefit claims hit 5-year low

The now-hiring signs are up across the nation

The now-hiring signs are up across the nation as the number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level since March 2008. (Dec. 12, 2012) (Credit: AP )

WASHINGTON - The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell to a five-year low last week, a hopeful sign the job market is healing.

Weekly unemployment benefit applications fell 37,000 to a seasonally adjusted 335,000, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday. That's the lowest level since January 2008, just after the recession began.

Although the weekly decline reflects seasonal volatility, the four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 359,250.

The applications data can be uneven in January. Job cuts typically spike in the second week of the month as retailers, restaurants and other companies lay off temporary workers hired for the winter holidays.

This past week, the layoffs weren't as large as expected, a department spokesman said. That caused a steep drop in the seasonally adjusted data.

Overall, applications remain at a level that suggests employers are hiring at a slow but steady pace. Applications fluctuated between 360,000 and 390,000 for most of last year. At the same time, employers added an average of 153,000 jobs a month.

That's just been enough to slowly push down the unemployment rate, which fell 0.7 percentage points last year to 7.8 percent.

Employers added 155,000 jobs this past month, nearly matching the average for the year. December's steady job gain suggests employers didn't cut back on hiring during the debate over the tax and spending changes known as the fiscal cliff. Many economists feared that the prospect of higher taxes and steep cuts in federal spending would cause a slowdown in job gains.

That's a good sign, since more budget showdowns are expected.

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