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Fewer people sought unemployment aid last week

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, a sign that layoffs are dropping and companies may be stepping up hiring.

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The Labor Department said today that the number of people seeking benefits dipped by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 388,000 for the week that ended March 26. That's the second decline in three weeks.

Applications near 375,000 or below are consistent with a sustained increase in hiring. Applications peaked during the recession at 659,000.

The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, rose to 394,250. Still, that figure has dropped by 35,500, or 8 percent, in the past eight weeks.

"The downtrend ... is undeniable," Joshua Shapiro, chief economist at MFR Financial Inc., said. "We believe that this improvement will continue in the weeks and months ahead."

The department also revised the previous five years of data. The changes showed that applications in recent weeks were moderately higher than previously reported.

As applications have fallen, hiring has started to pick up. Economists forecast that employers added a net total of 185,000 jobs in March. That would be just below February's gain of 192,000 -- the most jobs added in nearly a year. The unemployment rate is expected to remain unchanged at 8.9 percent.

The March data will be released Friday.

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