WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits likely fell last week, another sign of a steadily improving job market.
Economists forecast that applications fell 15,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 345,000, according to a survey by FactSet.
The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.
Two weeks ago, unemployment claims rose unexpectedly by 32,000 to 360,000, the highest level since late March. Most economists dismissed the increase as a one-week blip — though some worried that companies could be cutting some jobs because of deep federal budget cuts that began on March 1.
Applications tend to fluctuate sharply from week to week, and economists typically focus more on the four-week average. That average rose just 1,250 to 339,250 two weeks ago. It was 9 percent lower than it was six months ago.
Unemployment claims are a proxy for layoffs. Applications have come down since peaking at 659,000 in March 2009. They hit a five-year low 327,000 in April before bouncing up a bit.
Overall, the job market has shown signs of strength the past six months. Since November, employers have added an average 208,000 jobs a month, up from 138,000 the previous six months.
Still, much of the job gains have come from fewer layoffs — not increased hiring. Employers laid off just 1.7 million workers in March, only slightly above the 12-year low reached in January. Overall hiring, however, remains far below pre-recession levels.
The United States still has 2.6 million fewer jobs than it did when the recession began in December 2007. And unemployment was still painfully high in April at 7.5 percent, though it has come down sharply from 10 percent in October 2009.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told a congressional committee Wednesday that the job market is improving, but that higher taxes and deep spending cuts likely will slow economic growth this year.
Bernanke said it was too early for the Fed to abandon its extraordinary efforts to boost economic growth by keeping short-term interest rates near zero and buying $85 billion in bonds every month to pump money into the economy and push down longer term interest rates.