The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits fell by 9,000 to 282,000 in the seven days from March 15 to March 21, indicating that companies are holding onto their workers despite what appears to be a marked slowdown in first-quarter growth. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected initial claims - a proxy for layoffs - to total a seasonally adjusted 290,000. The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, dipped below the key 300,000 threshold for the first time since late February. The four-week average dropped by 7,750 to 297,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The monthly average levels out sharp fluctuations in the more volatile weekly report and is seen as a more accurate predictor of labor-market trends. Also, the government said continuing claims decreased by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 2.42 million in the week ended March 14. Continuing claims reflect the number of people already receiving benefits. Initial claims from two weeks ago were unrevised at 291,000.
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