Jobless claims hold steady at four-year low

WASHINGTON – The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits last week held at the lowest level since the early days of the 2007-2009 recession, signaling that the battered labor market is healing.

Workers filed 351,000 initial claims for state unemployment benefits, the same as in the prior week, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

The data suggests that a long cycle of heavy layoffs has run it course, laying the ground for more hiring.

“The economy is on the mend from a job creation perspective,” said Phil Orlando, a market strategist at Federated Investors in New York.

The last two weekly readings for claims were the lowest since March 2008, just three months after the deep recession began. Initial filings peaked above 650,000 in March 2009.

Signs of improvement in the job market have been growing.

The unemployment rate, which stood at 9.1 percent in August, dropped to 8.3 percent in January, and additions to payrolls have exceeded 200,000 for two straight months.

The latest jobless claims data covered the week that corresponds with the sample period for the government’s February payroll report, and suggests another solid month for hiring.

“It’s hard not to be optimistic about this,” said Brian Levitt, and economist at OppenheimerFunds in New York.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has left benchmark interest rates near zero since December 2008 to coax companies to take on more workers, and the recent improvement in the labor market has dampened expectations of further monetary stimulus.