WASHINGTON — Fewer people sought U.S. unemployment benefits last week as employers remain confident enough in the economy to hold onto their staffs.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the number of applications for weekly unemployment aid fell 15,000 to 281,000. The four-week average, a less volatile figure, rose 3,250 to 282,500. Both figures remain below 300,000, a very low level historically that points to a solid job market.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so last week's readings show that businesses are cutting few jobs. Applications have been below 300,000 since March.
"After 18 straight weeks below 300,000, it's clear that the trend in layoffs is very low indeed, close to all-time lows when adjusted for the rising population over time," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a note to clients.
The total number of people receiving aid dropped 112,000 last week to 2.22 million. That's 13 percent lower than a year ago. Many people receiving benefits have used up all their aid, though some have likely found jobs.
With layoffs low, employers are also hiring more to meet greater demand for their goods and services. The economy added 223,000 jobs in June, and the unemployment rate fell to a seven-year low of 5.3 percent.
Still, there were signs of lingering weakness in the job market.
The unemployment rate fell mostly because many of the unemployed stopped looking for work, rather than found jobs. The proportion of Americans working or looking for work fell to a 38-year low.
Average hourly pay was also unchanged in June from the previous month. Pay has risen at roughly a 2 percent annual pace since the recession ended in 2009, below the 3.5 percent typical in a healthy economy.
That sluggish wage growth could be holding back consumer spending and weighing on the economy. Sales at retailers and restaurants fell last month, the government said earlier this week, a sign Americans are still reluctant to spend freely.
Yet home sales have picked up and Americans are buying more cars. Analysts expect the economy will expand at about a 2.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter, after contracting 0.2 percent in the first three months of the year.