By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits suggests hiring is slowing.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dipped last week by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000. But that was only after the department revised up the previous week's data to show 8,000 more people applied for benefits than first estimated.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose last week by 5,500, to 374,750. That's the highest level in three months, although it is still 9% lower than the level from September.
Applications have started to tick up in recent weeks after months of steady declines. When applications fall below 375,000, it generally suggests hiring will be strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Some economists said temporary layoffs stemming from the spring holidays have inflated the figures. Many school employees are laid off during spring break and are eligible to file for benefits.
"What we're seeing in the numbers is not unusual at this time of year," said Carl Riccadonna, an economist at Deutsche Bank. Applications will likely fall in the coming weeks, he added.
Others said the gains may not only reflect seasonal adjustments.
"Discouraging news on initial jobless claims suggests job growth is slowing," said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets. "Still growing, mind you, but at a slower pace."
Hiring weakened in March after a fast start this year. Employers added only 120,000 jobs in March -- half the pace of the previous three months.
Many economists downplayed the weak March figures, noting that a warmer winter may have led to some earlier hiring in January and February. They have noted that the economy has added an average of 212,000 jobs per month in the January-March quarter, well ahead of last year's pace.
The unemployment rate has fallen to 8.2% in March from 9.1% in August. Part of the drop was because people gave up looking for work. People who are out of work but not looking for jobs aren't counted among the unemployed.
Lower benefit applications indicate that companies are cutting fewer jobs. And economists note that unemployment benefit applications are at a much lower level than they were last year, which is a hopeful sign that March's weak numbers were a temporary lull. Economists say they will have a better sense of the trend in hiring when the government issues the April jobs report next month.