U.S. unemployment benefit applications rose 16,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 360,000, although the level remains consistent with steady hiring.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the less volatile four-week average increased 6,000 to 351,750.
The weekly applications data can be volatile in July because some automakers briefly shut down their factories to prepare for new models and many schools close. Those factors can create a temporary spike in layoffs.
The broader trend has been favorable. Applications have declined steadily in the past year, as companies have laid off fewer workers and stepped up hiring. In the past six months, employers have added an average of 202,000 jobs a month. That's up from an average of 180,000 in the previous six months.
Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas, said the volatility will likely continue for the rest of the month and "could mask the true underlying trend in jobless claims data."
"We believe that labor market conditions remain on a gradually improving trajectory," she added.
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Employers added 195,000 jobs in June, and revisions showed that an additional 70,000 jobs were added in the previous two months. The unemployment rate was 7.6 percent, down from 8.2 percent a year earlier.
Applications fell to their lowest level since the recession began in the April-June quarter, according to calculations by Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. They averaged 346,000 a week in the second quarter. That is the lowest quarterly average since it was 338,000 in the final three months of 2007, when the Great Recession began.
About 4.5 million people received unemployment benefits in the week ending June 22, the latest data available. That's about 50,000 fewer than the previous week. It's also 23 percent lower than a year ago, when there were nearly 5.9 million recipients. Some of those who no longer receive benefits have gotten jobs, but many have simply used up all the benefits available.
More hiring could help the economy grow faster later this year. The economy expanded at an annual rate of just 1.8 percent in the January-March quarter. Most analysts think it slowed even further in the second quarter, to about 1 percent to 1.5 percent.
Greater hiring means more Americans are earning paychecks, which boosts income and potentially fuels more spending. Average hourly wages rose 2.2 percent in June compared to a year earlier, ahead of the 1.4 percent inflation rate. Pay gains have started to outpace inflation this year, after barely keeping pace since the recession ended four years ago.
That's helped push consumer confidence to a 5 1/2-year high. Greater consumer confidence is also helping drive up sales of homes and cars. From January through June, car sales reached their highest total for the first half of the year since 2007. And sales of previously occupied homes topped 5 million in May for the first time in 3 1/2 years
By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER
AP Economics Writer