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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people applying for unemployment benefits plunged last week to the lowest level in nearly three years, continuing a downward trend that suggests hiring could pick up this year.
Applications sank by a seasonally adjusted 36,000 to 383,000, the lowest point since early July 2008, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
Some analysts cautioned that severe winter weather that affected 30 states could have contributed to the sharp drop, closing some government offices and preventing people from filing applications.
Still, many analysts said the decline points to better hiring ahead.
"The sharp drop bodes well for February job creation," said economist Ellen Beeson Zentner at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.
Applications are well below their peak of 651,000, reached in March 2009, when the economy was deep in recession. Applications below 425,000 tend to signal modest job growth. But they would need to dip consistently to 375,000 or below to indicate a significant and steady decline in the unemployment rate.
When unemployment was at a more normal rate of 5 percent in 2005, applications hovered around 322,000. In boom times, when unemployment dipped to a 30-year low of 3.8 percent in April 2000, applications fell to 259,000
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