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. Meanwhile, another report out of Washington shows that U.S. productivity slowed in the fourth quarter.
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.
U.S. productivity grew at an even slower annual rate than previously thought in the final three months of last year.
Economists are hoping productivity growth will revive in 2014, reflecting a stronger economy.
The Labor Department says productivity grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the October-December quarter, a slowdown from 3.5 percent productivity growth in the third quarter.
The new estimate was lower than the 3.2 percent gain the government had previously reported. Unit labor costs dipped 0.1 percent, a smaller drop than the 1.6 percent drop previously estimated.
For the year, productivity increased a tiny 0.5 percent, continuing a weak trend seen over the past three years. Analysts are forecasting a rebound in productivity this year, helped by stronger economic growth.