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.
Ellen Zentner, senior economist at Nomura Securities, said applications around 400,000 indicate a neutral job market, “one that’s neither picking up, nor deteriorating.”
Only a few weeks ago some had feared the risks of another recession had grown. So “even neutral readings are good,” she said, because they signal that conditions aren’t worsening.
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.
In September, the economy generated 103,000 net jobs. That’s enough to calm recession fears, but it is far from what is needed to lower the unemployment rate, which stayed at 9.1 percent for the third straight month.
Thursday’s Labor Department report also showed that the number of people who are receiving unemployment benefits fell by 55,000 to 3.67 million. That’s the lowest level since April.
That figure doesn’t include several million additional people who are receiving benefits under extended programs put in place during the recession.
All told, 6.8 million people received unemployment benefits in the week ending Sept. 24, the latest data available.
Without more jobs and higher pay increases, consumers are likely to keep spending cautiously. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.
On Wednesday, the Labor Department said companies posted fewer jobs in August than the previous month, the first decline in four months. Economists said it was another sign that companies are reluctant to hire.
On a positive note, the turmoil didn’t boost job cuts. Employers laid off 1.66 million people in August, the Labor Department’s report said Wednesday. That’s down from July and far below the peak during the recession of 2.5 million.