Jobless claims tick up but reflect improving labor market

First-time claims for jobless benefits increased slightly last week but remain at levels reflecting an improving labor market. 

The number of people filing for unemployment insurance increased 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted rate of 304,000, hovering around pre-recession levels, the  Labor Department said Thursday.

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The four-week moving average, which is a better predictor of the health of the labor market, fell 4,750 to 312,000, the best showing since October 2007, two months before the economic downturn started. 

The report shows that businesses are laying off fewer workers and could pick up hiring this spring after a long winter that dragged on the economy and hiring. 

Economists are forecasting that job creation could eclipse 200,000 jobs on average each month heading into the summer.

Employers added 192,000 jobs in March and 197,000 in February while the unemployment rate stayed at 6.7 percent.

Those figures were up from the 129,000 jobs created in January and 84,000 in December that set off concerns about the health of the economy, which has struggled to gain a foothold since the recession ended in 2009.

Before leaving for a two-week spring recess, the Senate passed a measure that would provide five-additional months of benefits to those who have been out of work for at least six months. 

But House Republican leaders have said the measure is flawed and they don't expect to take it up despite increasing pressure from Democrats. 

The severe weather that plagued much of the country this winter is expected to hold economic growth to around 1.5 percent in the first three months of the year.

But economists have higher hopes for the rest of the year, predicting that the economy could really take off and reach a 3 percent annual pace.