The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits rose just 1,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 308,000, hovering near six-year lows.
Companies are still cutting very few jobs; however, the decline in layoffs has not been accompanied by a pickup in hiring.
Weekly applications could increase next week because of the partial government shutdown. Defense contractors and other companies that do business with the government may temporarily lay off workers. Federal workers who are temporarily laid off may also file for benefits, though their numbers are reported separately and published a week later than the other applications.
Still, the broader trend has been encouraging. Applications, which are a proxy for layoffs, have fallen steadily in the past three months as many companies have stopped laying off workers. That suggests more employers are confident enough in the economy to maintain their existing staffs.
Steady declines in applications are typically followed by more hiring. But job gains have slowed in recent months.
"Companies were not laying off workers ahead of the shutdown but they probably weren't hiring much, either," Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, said.
Employers have added an average of just 155,000 jobs a month in the four months through August, according to government data. That's down from an average of 205,000 for the first four months of the year.
On Wednesday, payroll provider ADP said that businesses added just 166,000 jobs in September, evidence that hiring remains sluggish.
The Labor Department's more comprehensive monthly employment report was scheduled to be released . But the September employment report will now be delayed until the government shutdown ends.
The government was able to release the unemployment benefits report because the data are compiled by the states, unlike the jobs report data, which is gathered by federal workers.