WASHINGTON - The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits jumped last week, but remained at a low level that suggests hiring should remain steady.
Applications rose 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 326,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The increase comes after applications fell to their lowest level since May 2007 two weeks ago.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dipped 1,000 to 322,500. The average reached a seven-year low of 312,000 last month. Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so the low levels suggest companies are cutting few jobs.
The number of people receiving benefits fell to 2.65 million, the fewest since Dec. 1, 2007, when the recession began.
"Don't be disappointed," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a research note. "The trend is downwards, signaling faster payroll growth."
The recent decline in firings has been accompanied by healthier hiring. Employers are adding more jobs, though unemployment remains at historically high levels.
The economy gained 288,000 jobs in April, the most in 2 1/2 years, and the unemployment rate plunged to 6.3 percent from 6.7 percent. But the rate drop occurred because fewer people looked for work. The government doesn't count people as unemployed unless they are actively searching.
In the first four months of this year, employers have added an average of 214,000 jobs a month, up from 194,000 last year.
The improved hiring may help boost economic growth for the rest of 2014. More jobs means more people with paychecks to spend.
The economy grew just 0.1 percent at an annual rate in the first three months of this year, largely because cold weather kept consumers away from shopping malls and discouraged home and car sales. Data that has been released since then suggests that the economy actually contracted in the first quarter by as much as 0.8 percent, analysts say.
Still, economists expect growth will accelerate to a healthy pace of about 3.5 percent in the second quarter, as consumer spending and homebuilding rebound from the cold weather. Growth may slow a bit in the second half of the year as the bounce-back fades. But it should top 2.5 percent for the whole year, economists forecast.