The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment-insurance benefits fell by 9,000 to 280,000 in the week that ended Dec. 20, hitting the lowest tally in seven weeks, signaling a slower pace of layoffs, according to Labor Department data released Wednesday. Employers are laying off very few workers, with weekly claims reaching a 14-year low of 266,000 in October. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims for regular state unemployment-insurance benefits to tick up to 290,000 in the most recent weekly data from 289,000 in the prior week. Analysts caution over reading too much into claims reports this time of the year, citing volatility from the holidays and weather. However, trends also showed improvement, with the four-week average of new claims falling 8,500 to 290,250. Also Wednesday, the government said continuing claims rose by 25,000 to 2.4 million in the week that ended Dec. 13. The four-week average of continuing claims, which reflect the number of people already receiving benefits, rose 20,000 to 2.42 million.
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