Applications for jobless benefits dropped last week for the third time in four weeks, a sign that employers are cutting fewer jobs.

Initial claims for unemployment aid fell by 16,000 to a seasonally adjusted 453,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Wall Street analysts had expected a smaller drop.

The decline returns jobless claims to the same level they were two weeks ago. Initial claims have fluctuated around 450,000 for most of this year.

The four-week average of claims, a less-volatile measure, dropped for the fifth straight week to 458,000, the lowest level in two months.

Applications for unemployment benefits, while volatile, provide a real-time snapshot of the job market. The weekly claims figures are considered a measure of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies' willingness to hire.

Initial claims have fallen sharply since June 2009, the month the recession ended. They topped 600,000 at the end of that month. But most of that decline took place last year.

The economy has slowed sharply this year, discouraging many employers from hiring. The economy grew at a 3.7 percent pace in the January-March period, but that fell to 1.7 percent in the second quarter. Most economists expect growth to be similarly weak in the current July-September quarter.

The number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits fell by 83,000 to just below 4.5 million, the department said. But that doesn't include several million people who are receiving unemployment aid under extended programs approved by Congress during the recession.

The extended benefit rolls dropped by about 300,000 to 4.9 million in the week ending Sept. 11, the latest data available. All told, about 8.8 million people received unemployment aid that week.

Some companies are still cutting workers. Last week, pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. said it would eliminate about 3 percent of its positions over the next six months. That's about 840 jobs out of 28,000 worldwide.