WASHINGTON -- Fewer Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, indicating companies continue to hire at a modest but steady pace.
The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 366,000.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped to 350,500, the lowest in nearly five years. The average is low because of seasonal factors, which reduced applications sharply last month.
Still, economists were encouraged by the decline. Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. When layoffs decline, net hiring typically rises.
The drop in the four-week average "is good news and supports the view that the U.S. labor market is gradually improving," said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets.
The four-week average of applications has dropped nearly 6 percent in the past three months. At the same time, hiring has picked up: Employers added an average of 200,000 jobs a month from November through January.
In January, employers added 157,000 jobs. And annual revisions included in the Labor Department's January employment report showed the economy created 600,000 more jobs in 2011 and 2012 than previously thought.