WASHINGTON -- Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, adding to evidence that layoffs are slowing and employers may be stepping up hiring.

The number of people seeking benefits dropped by 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 382,000 in the week ended March 19, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The fourth decline in five weeks lowered the four-week average to 385,250, the fewest for that measure since July 2008. The four-week average has fallen almost 11 percent in the past seven weeks.

Applications at about 375,000 or below indicate a sustained increase in hiring. Applications peaked during the recession at 651,000. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs.

The number of people receiving unemployment benefits fell for the fifth straight week to 3.7 million. But that doesn't include 4.3 million people who are receiving extended benefits under emergency federal programs enacted during the recession.

As applications have fallen, hiring has started to pick up. The economy added a net total of 192,000 jobs in February, the most in nearly a year. Many economists are expecting similar gains in March.

The unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent last month, the lowest since April 2009. Still, more hiring is needed to rapidly reduce the unemployment rate. More than 18 months after the recession ended, the economy has about 7.4 million fewer jobs than it did before the recession began in December 2007.