WASHINGTON (AP) - Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, adding to evidence that layoffs are slowing and employers may be stepping up hiring.
The number of people seeking benefits dropped by 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 382,000 in the week ended March 19, the Labor Department said Thursday.
The fourth decline in five weeks lowered the four-week average to 385,250, the fewest for that measure since July 2008. The four-week average has fallen almost 11 percent in the past seven weeks.
Applications at about 375,000 or below indicate a sustained increase in hiring. Applications peaked during the recession at 651,000. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs.
"The economy is getting better, demand is growing," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak. "There is only so much companies can do with their existing payrolls. At some point they have to expand."
Private-sector employers could add as many as 200,000 net new employees in March, Greenhaus said. That's similar to February's gain, which was the most in almost a year.