WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 393,000 last week. It was the second straight drop after Superstorm Sandy had driven applications much higher earlier this month.
A Labor Department analyst said Thursday that the storm had little effect on last week's data. Applications had spiked to 451,000 three weeks ago after Sandy struck the East Coast, closing businesses in the Northeast and cutting off power to 8 million homes in 10 states.
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People can claim unemployment benefits if their workplaces are forced to close and they aren't paid.
The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, rose to 405,250 last week. That figure has been elevated by the storm.
Superstorm Sandy made landfall Oct. 29. The government said last week that the storm caused benefit applications to jump by 75,000 in just New York and New Jersey in the week that ended Nov. 10. Applications also rose in Connecticut in Pennsylvania because of Sandy.
The department said Thursday that applications fell by about 31,000 in New York in the week that ended Nov. 17 and were little changed in New Jersey. They also fell in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. State-by-state data for last week will be released next Thursday.
Before the storm, weekly applications had fluctuated this year between 360,000 and 390,000. Meanwhile, employers have added an average of 157,000 jobs a month. That's barely enough to lower the unemployment rate, which was 7.9 percent in October.
The storm could end up reducing job gains in November, according to some economists. The spike in temporary layoffs may largely offset increases in hiring. Job gains could amount to as few as 25,000, down from a gain of 171,000 in October, some analysts forecast.
Still, the drop would likely be temporary and hiring would probably rebound in December.
Several recent reports suggest that the job market is improving. Employers added 171,000 jobs in October, a step up from September's gain of 148,000. Hiring in August and September was also stronger than first estimated.
The economy gained an average of 174,000 jobs a month in the July-September quarter. That's up from 67,000 a month in April through June.
The unemployment rate rose slightly in October because more Americans began looking for work. That suggests some felt their chances of finding a job had improved. Not all of them were hired, which pushed up the unemployment rate. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively searching for work.
Most consumers think hiring is increasing and more jobs will become available over the next six months, according to the Conference Board's consumer confidence survey. That has been a reliable indicator of job growth in the past.
The total number of people receiving benefits fell to just below 5.2 million in the week that ended Nov. 10, the latest period for which data are available. That's about 60,000 fewer than in the previous week. Some of the decline might have occurred because recipients found jobs. But some also probably used up all the benefits available to them.
Superstorm Sandy may also slow growth in the current October-December quarter. Economists forecast that growth may drop to an annual rate below 2 percent in the final three months of the year. On Thursday, the government revised its estimate of third-quarter growth to 2.7 percent, from an original estimate of 2 percent.
Concerns about the "fiscal cliff," the package of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect early next year, may also drag on growth in the current quarter. But if Congress and the White House reach a deal to replace the fiscal cliff, growth could accelerate next year.