The average number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits over the past month fell to the lowest level since March 2008, a sign that the job market is healing.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000 in the week ended Dec. 22. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to a nearly five-year low of 356,750.
Still, the Christmas holiday may have distorted the figures. A department spokesman said many state unemployment offices were closed Monday and Tuesday and could not provide exact data. That forced the government to rely on estimates. Normally, the government might estimate application data for one or two states. Last week, it had to use estimates for 19.
The estimates usually are fairly accurate, the spokesman said. Even so, the government likely will revise the figures by more than it normally does next week.
Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. They mostly have fluctuated this year between 360,000 and 390,000. At the same time, employers have added an average of 151,000 jobs a month in the first 11 months of 2012. That’s just enough to reduce the unemployment rate slowly.
Economists were mildly encouraged by the decline in applications. But they emphasized that the figures are volatile around the holidays. They also were distorted until recent weeks by superstorm Sandy.
Many expect next week’s jobs report to show that employers added about 150,000 jobs in December.