By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits increased just 4,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 352,000. The slight gain kept applications at a level consistent with solid hiring and suggests March's sluggish hiring may be temporary.
The Labor Department report released Thursday also noted that the four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 361,250.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They jumped three weeks ago to a four-month high, but then plummeted the following week. The sharp fluctuations reflected volatility around the Easter holiday, department officials said. Overall, applications have declined slightly since January.
``It appears that the modest growth of the economy is continuing to support modest improvement in labor market conditions,'' said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors.
Job growth slowed sharply in March. Employers added only 88,000 jobs last month, much lower than the average monthly gain of 220,000 from November through February.
The drop in applications over the past two weeks is among the reasons many economists predict job growth rebounded this month, to around 150,000 net jobs.
Declines in applications signal that companies are laying off fewer workers. But layoffs are only half of the equation. Businesses also need to be confident enough in the economic outlook to add more jobs.
More than 5.1 million people received benefits in the week ended March 30, the latest data available. That was about 125,000 fewer than the previous week.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent in March, down from 7.7 percent in February. Still, the drop occurred because more people out of work stopped looking for jobs. The government doesn't count people as unemployed unless they are actively looking for work.
The economy is expected to grow at a much quicker pace in the January-March quarter than in the final three months of last year. Most economists forecast growth could top an annual rate of 3 percent in the first quarter, up from just 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter.
But many analysts now expect growth will slow in the April-June quarter, mostly because across-the-board government spending cuts kicked in March 1. That may have made some businesses nervous about hiring last month.