aid applications plummet to 346,000

WASHINGTON –The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell sharply last week to a seasonally adjusted 346,000, suggesting March’s weak month of hiring may have been a temporary slowdown.

Unemployment aid applications dropped by 42,000 last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. The steep decline reversed sharp gains over the previous two weeks and brought the level back to a point that signals stronger job growth.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 3,000 to 358,000.

The data have been volatile in the past two weeks largely because of the Easter holiday, a department spokesman said. The timing of the holiday changes from year to year. That makes it difficult to adjust for school holidays and other changes that can cause temporary layoffs.

Applications had jumped by 31,000 two weeks ago to 388,000, the highest level in four months.

The unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.6 percent last month, down from 7.7 percent in February. However, the rate fell only because more people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.