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Applications for US unemployment benefits rise, though remain at pre-recession level

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WASHINGTON — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits increased last week after falling sharply two weeks ago. Despite the rise, the level of applications remains near pre-recession levels, a sign that hiring will likely remain healthy.

Weekly unemployment benefit applications rose 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 293,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Yet the four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell for the second straight week to 298,500.

The figures are "very low ... close to all-time lows when measured as a share of payrolls," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a research note. "We expect robust job growth in the months ahead."

Two weeks ago, applications had plummeted to 281,000, near a 14-year low first reached in July. Over the past year, the four-week average for applications has fallen 7.1 percent. They climbed above 650,000 during the recession in 2009.

PHOTO: FILE - This April 22, 2014, file photo shows an employment application form on a table during a job fair at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, N.Y. The Labor Department releases its weekly report on applications for unemployment benefits on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
FILE - This April 22, 2014, file photo shows an employment application form on a table during a job fair at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, N.Y. The Labor Department releases its weekly report on applications for unemployment benefits on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Fewer applications indicate that employers are holding onto their workers, likely because they are more confident about the economy. It may also indicate they will boost hiring.

The total number of people receiving benefits ticked up by 7,000 to 2.4 million. A year ago, 3.9 million people were receiving unemployment aid. That number has fallen sharply partly because of the expiration of extended benefits, a program that ended at the beginning of this year.

Applications fell steadily through the summer. At the same time, job gains have been solid, despite a slowdown in hiring in August.

Employers added just 142,000 jobs last month, according to the Labor Department, down from an average of 212,000 in the preceding 12 months. It was the end of a six-month streak of monthly job gains in excess of 200,000. The unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent from 6.2 percent, but only because some of those out of work gave up looking. The government doesn't count people as unemployed unless they are actively searching.

Still, most economists expect hiring will continue at a healthy pace this year. Surveys of both manufacturing and services firms show that companies in both sectors added workers in September.

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