Applications for U.S. jobless benefits fall to 331k

WASHINGTON - The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits declined 20,000 last week to 331,000, suggesting that Americans are facing fewer layoffs and better job prospects.

The Labor Department says the four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked up 250 to 334,000. That remains near pre-recession levels and serves as evidence that job losses have waned.

A total of 3.47 million Americans received benefits as of Jan. 18, down from 3.58 million the week before.

The January employment report being released Friday by the Labor Department will show whether hiring has improved. A scant 74,000 jobs were added in December, the fewest in three years. Most economists forecast that hiring will rebound in January to roughly match the monthly average of 185,000 jobs gained over the past two years.

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