Jobless claims fall for a third consecutive week
WASHINGTON – The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits fell for a third straight week, providing further evidence of a strong job market.The Labor Department reported Thursday that 299,000 laid-off workers applied for jobless benefits last week, down 5,000 from the previous week after declines of 8,000 and 7,000 in the two previous weeks.The total number of Americans receiving benefits dipped to 2.44 million, the lowest level in six years, signaling that the labor market has posted a strong rebound after the blows received last year from the Gulf Coast hurricanes.The government will report Friday on unemployment for March. Analysts believe the economy created a solid 198,000 jobs last month, down slightly from the 243,000 jobs created in February. The unemployment rate is expected to remain unchanged at 4.8 percent.Economists are looking for strong job growth to continue even as the economy slows a bit from what is expected to be a sizzling growth rate, perhaps topping 5 percent in the January-March quarter.Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital, said he belived the low weekly claims figures were pointing to monthly payroll growth which will average around 200,000 in coming months.He said weekly claims figures have been in a range of 280,000 to 320,000 this year, an improvement from the 310,000 to 340,000 range before Hurricane Katrina hit last August.”The decline is consistent with a plethora of other indicators suggesting labor demand is stronger this year than in 2004,” he said.In other economic news, the nation’s chain retail stores reported modest sales for March as cooler temperatures and a late Easter dampened the inclination of consumers to go on a shopping spree.Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Limited Brands and Gap Inc. all reported disappointing sales results while Costco Wholesale Corp. reported sales that beat Wall Street expectations.Retail sales had soared in January as unusually warm weather gave consumers the incentive to storm the shopping malls to redeem their Christmas gift cards. But the return of colder weather, rising interest rates and higher gasoline prices acted to depress sales in both February and March.The booming labor market has cut the number of laid off workers drawing unemployment benefits to 2.44 million for the week ending March 25, a decline of 22,000 from the previous week.That was the lowest level for jobless benefits since February 2001, a month before the country stumbled into the 2001 recession, ending a record-long decade of economic growth. Job losses persisted even after the recession ended in November 2001 as companies sought to get more production out of fewer workers in an effort to meet intense global competition.For the week ending March 25, a total of 32 states and territories reported a drop in claim applications while 21 reported increases.Kansas had the largest increase in claims, a rise of 2,189, which was attributed to higher layoffs in construction, retail trade and service industries. The other state reporting an increase in layoffs of more than 1,000 was New York, where benefit applications rose by 1,292.Five states reported big declines in layoffs, led by North Carolina where benefit applications dropped by 1,843 because of fewer layoffs in construction, retail trade, furniture manufacturing and food industries. California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio also reported declines in benefit applications of more than 1,000.