By Christopher S. Rugaber
WASHINGTON -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dipped last week but remained higher than it's been in recent weeks. The rise in applications in the past two weeks could signal that the job market is slowing.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications declined 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000. The previous week's data was revised up 8,000 to 388,000.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 5,500 to 374,750. That's the highest level in three months. But it still 9 percent lower than the level from September.
Applications have started to level off in recent weeks after months of steady declines. When applications fall below 375,000, it generally suggests hiring will be strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Hiring slowed in March after a fast start this year. Employers added only 120,000 jobs in March - half the pace of the previous three months.
Many economists downplayed the weak March figures, noting that a warmer winter may have led to some earlier hiring in January and February. They have noted that the economy has added an average of 212,000 jobs per month in the January-March quarter, well ahead of last year's pace.
The unemployment rate has fallen to 8.2 percent in March from 9.1 percent in August. Part of the drop was because people gave up looking for work. People who are out of work but not looking for jobs aren't counted among the unemployed.
Lower benefit applications indicate that companies are cutting fewer jobs. And economists note that unemployment benefit applications are at a much lower level than they were last year, which is a hopeful sign that March's weak numbers were a temporary lull. Economists say they will have a better sense of the trend in hiring when the government issues the April jobs report next month.
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