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Jan 22, 5:04 PM EST

US jobless aid applications drop for 1st time in 4 weeks

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week for the first time in a month, a sign that layoffs remain low and hiring is probably still healthy.

The Labor Department says that weekly applications dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 307,000. The decline comes after applications spiked the previous week to a seven-month high.

Most of the volatility reflects widespread layoffs of temporary employees hired by retailers, restaurants and other companies for the winter holidays. The government seeks to adjust the data for those seasonal trends, but doesn't always do so perfectly.

Applications have been near or below 300,000 since September, a historically low level that suggests companies are cutting few workers. Instead, strong economic growth in the spring and summer has encouraged employers to add more jobs.

"Through the volatility, claims are up a little recently," Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a note to clients. "The rise is too small to date to signal an uptrend, but the data merit watching."

Weekly applications averaged 308,000 in 2014, O'Sullivan noted, almost the same as last week's figure. Job gains averaged 246,000 a month last year, the most in 15 years.

Some companies are announcing large layoffs. American Express said Wednesday that it is cutting 4,000 jobs, or about 6 percent of its workforce.

Even with the recent increases, applications are still lower than a year ago. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 307,000. That is 8.5 percent lower than 12 months earlier.

The decline in layoffs has been matched by an increase in hiring.

Employers added 252,000 jobs last month, topping off the best year for hiring in 15 years. The economy gained nearly 3 million jobs last year, helping to push down the unemployment rate to a six-year low of 5.6 percent.

Still, wage growth has lagged hiring. Average wages increased only 1.7 percent in 2014. That's down from 1.9 percent in 2013 and much lower than the 3.5 percent to 4 percent that is consistent with a healthy economy.

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