WASHINGTON - The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell a slight 3,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 336,000, a sign that layoffs remain low.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, rose slightly to a seasonally adjusted 338,500.
The average is roughly in line with pre-recession levels and indicates that companies are cutting few jobs. Applications are a rough proxy for layoffs.
The number of applicants has stabilized in recent weeks despite modest levels of hiring in January and February. When applications for unemployment benefits remain fairly steady from week to week, it suggests that businesses are confident that customer demand will be strong enough to justify retaining their workers.
A total of 3.53 million Americans received benefits as of Feb. 1 - the latest period for which figures are available - up from 3.52 million the previous week.
In recent months, snowstorms and frigid weather have contributed to a slowdown in hiring, retail sales and home construction. A scant 113,000 jobs were added in January. That follows the addition of just 75,000 jobs in December. Job growth for the past two months is only about half the monthly average for the previous two years.
Some positive signs did emerge in January's jobs report. The unemployment rate reached a five-year low of 6.6 percent. The decline from 6.7 percent occurred because more of those out of work found jobs.