Applications for US unemployment aid tick higher to 254,000

More Americans sought unemployment benefits last week but the number of applications remained low, the latest sign that layoffs are scarce.

THE NUMBERS: The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for jobless aid rose 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 254,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked down to 256,000, matching a 43-year low first reached in April.

The number of people receiving aid dropped 46,000 to 2.1 million, the smallest number since July, 2000. Even in a healthy economy some people lose jobs as companies restructure.

THE TAKEAWAY: The economy is expanding, though at a sluggish pace, growing just 1.4 percent in the April-June quarter, according to a separate government report Thursday.

But businesses are hiring steadily and holding tightly to their staffs. With the unemployment rate low at 4.9 percent, many employers say they can't find qualified workers for open positions. That makes them reluctant to cut jobs.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Any figure below 300,000 is a sign of a healthy job market.

Applications have been below that level for 82 weeks, the longest such streak since 1970.

KEY DRIVERS: Employers added 151,000 jobs in August, after two big gains in June and July. Still, the pace of gains has slowed this year from 2014 and 2015.

Economists largely expected the deceleration, which typically occurs as the unemployment rate falls and fewer people are available to take available jobs.

Still, consumers are more confident and spending more, providing a foundation for modestly faster growth later this year. Consumer confidence last month reached its highest point since the recession, according to the Conference Board.