WASHINGTON — New filings for unemployment claims fell last week, and the total number of workers receiving jobless benefits dropped to a 4½-year low — further signs of the gradual recovery in the labor market.
The Labor Department said Thursday that first-time claims for jobless benefits fell to 341,000 in the week ended Feb. 9, from a revised 368,000 the prior week. The decline of 27,000 filings was much bigger than what many economists had forecast, but the data have bounced up and down this year. Analysts said the winter storm in the Northeast last week did not appear to have affected the numbers, as people generally file for unemployment benefits by phone or over the Internet.
Over the last four weeks, new jobless filings averaged 352,500, which is down from the four-week moving average of 371,250 in the comparable period a year earlier. New filings reflect layoff trends, and the slow and steady decline indicates that employers are generally operating with lean staffs — and thus poised for more hiring if broader economic conditions improve.
Earlier in the week, the Labor Department's monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey for December showed that the number of workers laid off fell to the lowest level since the survey began in 2001, said Moody's Analytics. Yet the number of job openings dipped slightly from November, suggesting little dynamism in the market as employers hold on to workers but are not expanding their staffing much.
Thursday's report showed that continuing claims for unemployment benefits stood at 3.1 million in the week ended Feb. 2. That is lowest since July 2008, before the worst of the recession hit and the job market began to tumble.