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Jul 24, 9:14 AM EDT

Applications for US jobless benefits dip to 284,000; lowest level since February 2006

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week to its lowest level in more than eight years.

Weekly applications for unemployment aid dropped 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 284,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the lowest reading since February 2006, nearly two years before the Great Recession began.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, declined 7,250 to 302,000. Claims for jobless aid have been falling for the past three months. Recent reports have coincided with the temporary summer shutdowns of auto plants, yet the impact of those closures is addressed through seasonal adjustments.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. When employers hold onto their workers, it's a sign of potential income gains, increased hiring and confidence that the economy will grow. The recent drop-off in unemployment benefit applications point to a substantial number of jobs added in July, raising expectations for the monthly employment report to be released August 1.

"All in, it looks like we may be in for another solid payroll report," said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

The decline in people applying for benefits buttresses other reports that the economy is improving.

Employers added 288,000 jobs in June, the fifth straight month of job gains above 200,000. That's the first such stretch since 1999, during the height of the dot-com boom. The unemployment rate has fallen to 6.1 percent, the lowest since September 2008.

Total layoffs in May dropped below pre-recession levels, the government said in a separate report. Job openings are at their highest level in seven years, while more workers are quitting their jobs. Workers usually quit when they have an offer for a better position or confidence that they can find one.

Still, the job growth has done little to lift wages significantly. Wage growth has barely matched inflation during the economic recovery.

But more people with jobs increases the total number of paychecks, which could boost consumer spending and growth. After a sharp contraction in the economy in the first three months of the year, most economists expect growth to return in the April-June quarter and exceed 3 percent at an annual pace in the second half of 2014.

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