The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell sharply for a fourth straight week, a sign that the job market may be improving.

The Labor Department said Thursday weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell 29,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 343,000, the lowest in two months. It is the second-lowest total this year.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so the drop indicates companies are cutting fewer jobs. But employers also need to step up hiring to rapidly push down the unemployment rate.

The drop suggests that companies aren't laying off workers in advance of the tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect early next year.

"Worries about the 'fiscal cliff' are not translating into any significant weakening in the labor market yet," said Jim O'Sullivan, an economist at High Frequency Economics.

Applications spiked five weeks ago because of superstorm Sandy. The storm's impact has now faded. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell 27,000 to 381,500.

Before the storm, applications had fluctuated between 360,000 and 390,000 this year.

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The storm had little effect on overall hiring last month. Employers added 146,000 jobs, the government said last week. The average monthly gain was 150,000 in the past year.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent -- a four-year low -- from 7.9 percent in October. But the decline occurred mostly because more people without jobs gave up looking for work.