Jobless claims drop to nearly a 7-year low

First-time unemployment claims dipped below the 300,000 mark for the first time in nearly seven years, as businesses are laying off fewer workers. 

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for unemployment benefits fell 23,000 last week to 298,000, the lowest level since early January 2007, a positive sign for the labor market's recovery.

The four-week average, which provides a better idea as to where the labor market is headed, dropped 10,750 to 322,250.

The caveat with the data is that claims fell to 294,000 in early September, but government officials say that figure was skewed because California was late in reporting.  

There also were some distortions in October while California and several other states processed backlogs, pushing the numbers up to their highest level since March.

But claims have made steady progress this year, showing more consistent improvement in the past couple of months. 

The Labor Department will release its November jobs figures on Friday. Estimates range between 175,000 and 200,000. 

If a private-sector report is any indication — 215,000 jobs were added last month, ADP said on Wednesday — the November numbers could reflect a healthier job market. 

The unemploymentc could drop slightly, too, to 7.2 percent from 7.3.

Still, the jobless rate remains high as many unemployed workers struggle to find jobs.

Stronger jobs growth is a determining factor for the Federal Reserve, which is expected to taper its $85 billion in monthly stimulus sometime in the spring.