Washington — Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell slightly last week as the economy moves closer to generating more jobs.
The Labor Department said Thursday that new jobless benefit claims dropped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 439,000, nearly matching analysts’ estimates. It’s the fourth drop in five weeks.
The four-week average of claims, which smooths volatility, fell by nearly 7,000 to 447,250, the lowest total since the week of Sept. 13, 2008, just before Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial crisis intensified.
The report adds to evidence that the job market is healing as the economy improves. Gross domestic product grew by 5.6 percent in last year’s fourth quarter, the fastest pace in six years. But economists forecast growth will slow to about half that in the January-to-March quarter.
Many economists expect jobless claims will continue to drop and will soon fall below 425,000, a level that is likely to signal sustained job creation.
The report comes a day before the Labor Department is scheduled to release the March employment report. Economists expect it will show the economy generated 190,000 jobs last month, the most in three years and only the second gain since the recession began.
Many of those job gains will be a result of temporary government hiring to conduct the 2010 Census. Some will also represent delayed hiring from February, when massive snowstorms hit the East Coast and closed many businesses. Still, economists expect that employers are adding jobs even excluding those factors.
Analysts also forecast that the unemployment rate will remain 9.7 percent for the third straight month, according to Thomson Reuters.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Thursday in a television interview that administration officials are “very worried” about recovering the more than 8 million jobs lost. But he noted that business growth has been improving and expects the economy “is going to start creating jobs again.” The interview was broadcast on NBC’s “Today” show.
Other recent job reports have been mixed. Payroll provider ADP said Wednesday that private employers cut 23,000 jobs in March, well below economists’ forecasts of a 40,000 gain. That figure doesn’t include Census hiring and other government jobs.
And the Monster employment index, a measure of online job postings, rose one point to 125 in March, its second straight monthly gain.