WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week after reaching the lowest level in 5 ½ years. But the broader trend suggests companies are laying off fewer workers and could step up hiring in the months ahead.
The Labor Department said today that applications for first-time benefits rose 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 336,000 in the week ending Aug. 17. That’s up from 323,000 in the previous week, which was the lowest since January, 2008.
The four-week average, which smooths week to week fluctuations, fell by 2,250 to 330,500. That’s the sixth straight decline and the lowest for the average since November 2007.
At the depths of the recession in March, 2009, applications numbered 670,000.
Applications for unemployment benefits generally reflect layoffs. The four-week average has fallen 5 percent in the past month. The drop suggests employers added 200,000 or more jobs in August, an improvement from the 162,000 added in July.
The unemployment rate fell to a 4½-year low of 7.4 percent last month, down from 7.6 percent in June. That’s still well above the 5 percent to 6 percent range associated with a normal economy.