WASHINGTON - The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest level in almost seven years, falling 32,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 300,000.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, fell 4,750 to 316,250.
Fewer Americans sought benefits last week than at any point since the Great Recession began at the end of 2007. Applications are at their lowest level since May of that year.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs, and the decrease suggests that employers expect stronger economic growth in the coming months and are holding onto their workers.
"The recent trend in jobless claims is unambiguously positive, and this report provides additional evidence that progress in the jobs market is picking up steam," said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors.
However, the numbers may not be drawing a perfectly clear picture. Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, cautioned that the drop-off might be smaller than it appears. He noted that the Easter holiday, which moves from year-to-year, might have distorted the seasonal adjustments.
"We need to see a few more weeks' numbers before we can be sure where the trend now stands," Shepherdson said in a client note. "Our core view is that claims are drifting gently downwards."
Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics agreed. "As always, the weekly data can be volatile, with the timing of Easter the main challenge around this time of year." He added: "However, through the volatility, claims remain highly encouraging."
Employers added 192,000 jobs in March, the Labor Department said last week. That follows gains of 197,000 in February, as the unemployment rate stayed at 6.7 percent for the second straight month.
Snowstorms and freezing temperatures in January and December shut down factories, kept shoppers away from stores and reduced home buying. That cut into growth and hiring. Employers added 144,000 jobs in January and only 84,000 in December.
More jobs and higher incomes will be needed to spur better overall economic growth. For now, economists expect the bad weather contributed to weak growth of 1.5 percent to 2 percent at an annual rate in the January-March quarter. But as the weather improves, most analysts expect growth to rebound to near 3 percent.