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By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Initial unemployment claims fell last week, dropping the average over the previous month to its lowest level in 14 years, the Labor Department said Thursday.

About 278,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits, down 10,000 from the previous week. The decline was larger than economists had forecast.

The figure remained above the post-Great Recession low of 266,000, reached in the week ended Oct. 11.

But the four-week average fell by 2,250 to 279,000 last week, the lowest since April 2000, the Labor Department said.

The decline was a positive sign ahead of Friday’s Labor Department report on October job growth and unemployment.

The four-week average for claims, which smooths out some of the volatility of the closely watched labor market barometer, has been falling steadily since the beginning of the year.

Average claims were running about 340,000 in January and have been below 300,000 since mid-September. Those levels are consistent with a healthy and growing labor market.

Economists forecast the Labor Department will report Friday that the economy added a solid 240,000 net new jobs last month and the unemployment rate held steady at 5.9 percent.

But in a worrisome sign, planned layoffs by U.S. companies jumped in October to the highest level since May, career counseling firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said Thursday.

The 51,183 announced job cuts last month came after the figure hit a 14-year low of 30,477 in September. But planned layoffs were still down about 4.3 percent through October compared with the same period last year.

“While it is too early to say for certain, the October figure may mark the kick-off to a fourth-quarter surge in job cuts,” said company Chief Executive John A. Challenger.

“It is not unusual to see the pace of downsizing accelerate in the final months of the year, as employers take measures to meet year-end earnings and profit goals,” he said.

Retail firms announced the most cuts last month with 6,874, followed by computer companies with 6,509, Challenger said.

AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan

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