The number of people claiming unemployment benefits for the first time barely rose last week, after two weeks of sharp drops, further evidence that layoffs are easing.
The Labor Department says initial claims for jobless benefits rose by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 434,000 last week. That's lower than the 447,000 that analysts expected.
The number of continuing claims dropped 179,000 to 4.8 million. But that figure doesn't include an additional 5.4 million people receiving unemployment under federal emergency programs, as of the week ending Dec. 19, the latest data available.
Economists are closely watching initial claims, which are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies' willingness to hire new workers.