US applications for jobless benefits dip to 282k; sign employers are shrugging off slow winter

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WASHINGTON — Fewer people sought U.S. unemployment benefits last week, evidence that strong hiring should continue despite signs of slower economic growth at the start of 2015.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for jobless aid fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 282,000. The decrease suggests that a recent slowdown in manufacturing, housing starts and retail sales have not trickled into the job market, a possible indication that economic growth will rebound after a harsh winter.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, tumbled 7,750 to 297,000. Over the past 12 months, the average has dipped roughly 7 percent.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The relatively low average shows that employers are holding onto workers and may increase hiring. Applications below 300,000 are generally consistent with solid monthly job gains.

The economy has been struck by some setbacks during a frigid February. Factories cranked out fewer long-lasting goods, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. Builders broke ground on fewer homes last month, while retail spending has fallen.

Those reports indicate that growth will be dramatically lower than its annual average of 2.2 percent during the final three months of last year, which was already a decrease from growth averaging more than 4 percent in the middle of 2014.

The Atlanta Federal Reserve forecasts that first-quarter growth will be at an annualized rate of 0.2 percent. Private firm Macroeconomic Advisers estimated somewhat more optimistically on Tuesday growth of 1.4 percent.

Still, as layoffs have dipped, job growth has soared. In each of the past 12 months, employers have added at least 200,000 jobs. The gains totaled 295,000 in February.

The job growth has slashed the unemployment rate to 5.5 percent from 6.7 percent a year ago.

However, wages have yet to rise significantly, limiting the benefits to the overall economy from the additional jobs. Average hourly wages have climbed just 2 percent over the past 12 months.

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