WASHINGTON - The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell by 23,000 last week, further evidence that the job market is slowly returning to health.
The Labor Department says applications declined to a seasonally adjusted 340,000, down from 363,000 the previous week.
The less volatile four-week average ticked down 500 to 339,500. That's close to the five-year low of 338,000 registered the first week of May. The four-week average is 9 percent lower than in November.
Unemployment claims are a proxy for layoff. The decline in claims has coincided with steady job growth. Since November, employers have added an average 208,000 jobs a month, up from 138,000 the previous six months.
Still, much of the improvement has come from fewer layoffs, not hiring.