The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits last week fell sharply to the lowest level in four years, a hopeful sign for the struggling labor market, government data showed on Thursday.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000, the Labor Department said.
The drop, which brought new claims to their lowest level since March 2008, was much steeper than Wall Street economists expected.
The prior week's figure was revised slightly higher to 376,000 from the previously reported 374,000.
Hiring by U.S. companies slowed dramatically in the second quarter as employers grew worried about Europe's snowballing debt crisis, which is weighing on the global economy. Many employers also are concerned over the possibility the U.S. government may cut spending and let tax cuts expire next year, which could send the economy into recession.
The level of new claims for unemployment insurance was the lowest since March 2008 -- the early days of the 2007-2009 recession.
The fall in claims data suggests that while employers are holding the line on hiring, at least they aren't picking up the pace of layoffs. That could boost hopes the stalling in job creation might prove temporary.
Still, the jobless claims data had an important caveat.
Top 10 Companies Hiring
New Jobless Claims Fall Sharply to Four-Year Low
The once-dominant toy retailer is opening many new stores, while "re-opening" other stores in an effort to improve its brand.
Employee Review: "Pretty solid paid time-off and vacation packages, reasonably priced medical/dental insurance. Opportunities to advance within the company."*
AT&T has committed to a $350 million program, called "Aspire," which includes a job-shadowing program aimed at bringing students into the workforce. Although traditional landline service is dying, new talent is needed to fulfill wireless needs.
Employee Review: "They provide great benefits and pay. I know they match quite a bit for 401(k) investment. It is a great job for someone interested in technology and learning about new technologies. Also, it is great to know that you are helping others out on a daily basis."*
UnitedHealth Group currently provides health insurance services to more than 75 million people worldwide. It recently joined the 100,000 Jobs Mission, a coalition of companies dedicated to hiring 100,000 veterans by 2020.
Employee Review: "I really enjoyed my time at UnitedHealth Group. The trainers were very knowledgeable and were always there to answer any questions that I had. I worked as a claims associate for just a few short months before being promoted to another department. I then went on to work from home! Only left this company because of personal issues not related to my job. Great place to work!"*
Operating more than 3,000 stores in the United States, Rent-A-Center recently opened stores in Rochester, N.Y., and Rocky Mount, Va.
Employee Review: "Always something new every day, never a dull moment. Small stores, opportunities to develop strong relationships with customers. Virtually no scripts to follow, no "dumbing-down"... employees are encouraged and empowered to answer challenges and solve problems"*
The venerable retail company is planning to revamp product lines in an effort to better connect with customers in 2012.
Employee Review: "My favorite thing about working with Sears is the stability. The company has been around for over 100 years and is one of the largest in the world. It has great benefits and work-life balance is excellent. I don't have to worry about being on-call on nights and weekends. They have really great quality people who are easy to get along with."*
The company agreed to a partnership with the Obama administration in which it pledged to provide part-time summer jobs to young people. The federal program will provide approximately 180,000 paid jobs and Wells Fargo has committed to approximately 1,000 of them.
Employee Review: "Large company with a lot of training; encouraged to change positions/departments within bank to grow and learn; good senior management and diversity commitment."*
The company has announced the addition of 1,800 new jobs in Belvidere, Ill. These jobs will support the production of the new Dodge Dart compact car, and augment the approximately 2,700 current jobs at the Illinois plant.
Employee Review: "The company is extremely adaptable and resilient after its financial distress in recent years, and the company is very hopeful for the future. The need for young and creative people is overwhelming -- those without automotive background may be better positioned than they think!"*
A Labor Department official noted that part of the drop might be due to some auto manufacturers keeping their plants open during the first week of July to meet demand.
Normally plant closures during that week would lead to a spike in jobless claims, but they did not materialize. That suggests part of the strength in the labor market last week might be due to temporary factors.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, fell 9,750 to 376,500. That is still a significant drop, although the average is only at its lowest since May.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Neil Stempleman)