People wait in line to enter a job fair in...

People wait in line to enter a job fair in New York. (Feb. 24, 2010) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of newly laid-off workers requesting unemployment benefits slipped last week, the latest sign the employment picture is slowly brightening.

The Labor Department said initial jobless claims fell by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 462,000. That’s close to Wall Street analysts’ estimates of 460,000, according to Thomson Reuters, and the second straight drop.

Still, the four-week average of claims, which smooths volatility, rose to 475,500, reflecting a sharp increase in claims last month.

The four-week average has risen by about 25,000 since the beginning of the year, after falling for most of last year. The increase has raised concerns among economists that layoffs haven’t slowed as much as hoped.

But February’s employment report, released by the Labor Department last week, restored some optimism. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.7 percent, the same as January, and employers cut 36,000 jobs. Excluding the impact of the snowstorms that hit the East Coast last month, the report likely would have shown job gains, economists said, for only the second time since the Great Recession began in December 2007. The unemployment rate hasn’t increased since October.

Initial claims are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies’ willingness to hire new workers.

In late December, claims fell to 434,000, their lowest level since July 2008. Claims peaked at 674,000 in the spring.

The department also said Thursday the number of people continuing to claim jobless benefits rose by about 40,000 to 4.56 million. But these so-called continuing claims don’t include millions of people who have used up their regular 26 weeks of benefits and are receiving extended benefits for up to 73 more weeks.

Nearly 5.7 million people were receiving extended benefits in the week that ended Feb. 20, down from about 5.9 million the previous week.

Some companies are still cutting workers. Oil producer Chevron Corp. said Tuesday that it will cut about 2,000 jobs this year.

Others are hiring. The consulting firm Accenture PLC has said it plans to hire more than 7,000 people in the United States and about 50,000 worldwide by the end of August.

Among the states, California had the largest increase in claims, with 16,112. New York, Florida, Texas and Nevada had the next largest increases. The state data lags initial claims by one week.

Pennsylvania had the biggest drop in claims, with 4,772, which it attributed to fewer layoffs in the construction, transportation and industrial machinery industries. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Kentucky and Missouri had the next largest decreases.

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