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Unemployment apps hover near low levels

WASHINGTON — Slightly more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week. But the overall level stayed low enough to suggest the job market is strengthening.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications increased by 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000.

The four-week average, which smooths week-to-week fluctuations, remained at roughly 355,000. That’s essentially unchanged from last week’s level, which was the lowest in four years.

“We are not concerned by the modest rise in claims as the downtrend remains firmly in place,” Joseph LaVorgna, an economist at Deutsche Bank, said in a note to clients.

Applications have fallen 14 percent since October. When applications fall below 375,000, that generally signals hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate. The steady decline has coincided with three months of big hiring gains.

The economy has added an average of 200,000 net jobs per month from November through January. That has helped lower the unemployment rate for five straight months to 8.3 percent. Economists predict that more than 200,000 net jobs were added in February, too.