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Weekly jobless claims rise to 302,000

WASHINGTON - More people sought U.S. unemployment benefits last week, but jobless claims remain at pre-recession levels.

The Labor Department says weekly applications for unemployment aid rose 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 302,000. The prior week's was revised down to 279,000 claims, the lowest since May 2000.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell 3,500 to 297,250. That's the lowest average since April 2006, more than a year before the Great Recession began at the end of 2007.

"Through the volatility, the claims data continue to signal an improving labor market. The 297,000 average over the last four weeks is down from 316,000, on average," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at research firm High Frequency Economics. "The decline helps corroborate the pick-up in payrolls to +231,000 per month so far this year from 194,000 last year; that is clearly much more than enough to keep unemployment trending down."

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. When employers keep their workers, it suggests potential income gains, active hiring and confidence that the economy is growing.

Economists forecast that the employment report being released Friday will show that 225,000 jobs were added in July, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet.