New jobless claims are lowest in three weeks

WASHINGTON ( — The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits hit the lowest level in three weeks, as employers continued to lay off very few workers, according to government data released Thursday.

Initial claims for regular state unemployment-insurance benefits inched down by 3,000 to 294,000 in the week that ended Dec. 6, the U.S. Labor Department reported. Economists polled by had expected initial claims to drop a hair to 296,000 from 297,000 in the prior week.

For context, weekly initial claims hit a recent trough of 266,000 in October, the lowest tally since 2000.

Meanwhile, the average of new jobless claims over the past month inched up by 250 to 299,250. Economists look at four-week averages to identify trends, rather than focusing on weekly volatility.

“The change is still fairly modest given normal volatility, especially at this time of year,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. “Nor is there any sign of a sustained uptrend in new claims.”

Thursday’s data echo other readings on unemployment that show the U.S. labor market is moving in the right direction. Competition among the jobless for open spots recently hit the lowest level since early in the recession, with about 1.9 unemployed people per job opening in October.

A strengthening labor market should support a healthy economic cycle, with more confident and better-paid workers spending more, which, in turn, could lead to more growth of jobs and the economy.

Also Thursday, the government reported continuing claims increased by 142,000 to a seasonally adjusted 2.51 million in the week ended Nov. 29. Continuing claims reflect the number of people already receiving benefits. The four-week average of continuing claims rose by 27,750 to 2.39 million.