WASHINGTON -- The number of people applying for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week, offering some hope that the job market may be improving. But claims need to fall further to bring down the 9.6 percent unemployment rate.
Initial claims for jobless aid increased by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 439,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Still, claims have fallen below 440,000 in three of the past four weeks and remain near their lowest level in two years.
And the four-week average of claims, a less-volatile measure, fell for the fourth time in five weeks to 443,000. That's the lowest level for the average since September 2008. The average has fallen by almost 20,000, or 4.2 percent, in the past five weeks.
The downward trend in both figures suggests companies are laying off fewer workers and some hiring is taking place. Still, most economists say claims need to drop below 425,000 to signal that rapid hiring is taking place.
The weekly jobless claims figures provide a real-time snapshot of the job market. They closely track layoffs, which have dropped steadily in the past year, and indicate whether companies are hiring.
The number of people continuing to claim unemployment aid fell by 48,000 to just under 4.3 million for the week ending Nov. 6, the department said. But that doesn't include millions of additional people on extended unemployment programs that were set up during the recession.
Overall, about 8.85 million people are receiving jobless aid, including 4.7 million that are doing so through the federally funded extended benefit programs. Those provide up to 99 weeks of benefits.
But the extended programs are set to expire at the end of this month. Up to 2 million people will lose benefits in December if the program isn't extended, and another 2 million will run out this winter, the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit group, estimates.
House Democrats have introduced legislation that would extend the program for three months. But it isn't clear if the bill will pass before Congress adjourns later this month.