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Applications for jobless aid fall 20K to 331K

WASHINGTON – The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits declined 20,000 last week to 331,000, suggesting Americans are facing fewer layoffs and better job prospects.

The Labor Department said the four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked up 250 to 334,000. That remains near pre-recession levels and serves as evidence job losses have waned.

A total of 3.47 million Americans received benefits as of Jan. 18, down from 3.58 million the week before.

Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, described the decline in benefit claims as “something of a relief.”

Cold weather in January caused work stoppages, leading the number of unemployment benefits applications to swing from week to week. The Labor Department said it had to estimate, for example, the number of applications from Kansas after an ice storm prevented that state from providing data.

“The latest bout of severe weather could easily push claims back up again for a time,” Shepherdson cautioned.

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