WASHINGTON -- New claims for unemployment insurance fell for the second straight week, fresh evidence the job market is slowly improving.
Still, the declines come after a sharp increase three weeks ago, and claims remain at elevated levels.
The Labor Department said Thursday that initial claims for jobless benefits dropped last week by 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 453,000. That nearly matches analysts' forecasts, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters.
Initial claims are closely watched by economists because they are considered a gauge of layoffs and a measure of companies' willingness to hire new workers.
After falling steadily in the second half of last year, claims have leveled off and are now only slightly below the level they were at the beginning of this year. That's raised concerns among some economists that hiring is still sluggish.
The four-week average, which smooths volatility, rose for the third straight week to 459,000.
That's down by only 8,000 from its level in mid-January.
Employers are starting to ramp up hiring as the economy recovers from the worst recession since the 1930s, but not quickly enough to bring down the jobless rate. Unemployment rose to 9.9 percent in April from 9.7 percent the previous month, even as the economy generated 290,000 jobs. The rate rose partly because almost a million people began or resumed job searches that month, increasing the size of the labor force.
The number of people continuing to claim benefits rose by 31,000 to 4.67 million. Analysts had expected the total benefit rolls to remain level.
The claims figures come a day before the Labor Department is scheduled to release the May jobs report. Analysts expect that report to show the economy added 513,000 jobs, the most in 26 years. But at least 300,000 of those positions are likely to be temporary Census workers.
The unemployment rate is forecast to fall to 9.8 percent, according to a Thomson Reuters survey of economists.
Some companies are still laying off employees. Hewlett-Packard Co. said Tuesday that it is cutting 9,000 jobs in its technology services division. And the chocolate maker Hershey Co. is planning to cut 600 jobs, though the proposal must still be approved by the company's workers.
At the same time, rising auto sales have led some automakers to add jobs. Chrysler LLC said last month it will hire 1,100 new workers at a plant in Detroit to help build the new Jeep Grand Cherokee. Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, said in May that it will add 170 jobs in two factories near Detroit to make parts for its hybrid cars.