Applications for unemployment aid barely changed

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell slightly last week, a sign the job market isn’t getting much better.

Applications ticked down by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 404,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The four-week average declined for the third straight week to 408,000. That’s the lowest average in eight weeks.

Still, applications are higher than they would be in a healthy economy. They need to fall consistently below 375,000 to signal sustainable job growth. They haven’t been below that level since February.

The report suggests that layoffs have declined in recent weeks. But other data show hiring hasn’t picked up.

Employers pulled back on hiring this spring, after rising gas prices cut into consumer spending and Japan’s March 11 earthquake disrupted supply chains, which slowed U.S. auto production.

In recent months, gas prices have eased slightly and supply chains are flowing more freely. Yet hiring hasn’t improved much. Employers have added an average of only 72,000 jobs in the past five months. That’s far below the 125,000 per month needed to keep up with population growth. And it’s down from an average of 180,000 in the first four months of this year.

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