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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dropped 26,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 323,000, the lowest level in three months as layoffs remain at pre-recession levels.

The Labor Department says the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, fell slightly to a seasonally adjusted 336,500.

That average indicates that companies are cutting few jobs and anticipate steady economic growth despite the winter slowdown. Applications are a rough proxy for layoffs.

Economists are watching these numbers ahead of the February jobs report being released Friday. Cold weather and snowstorms appear to have limited hiring in January and December.

A total of 3.4 million Americans received benefits as of Feb. 15 — the latest period for which figures are available — down from 3.49 million the previous week.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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