Published: Apr 22, 2010 2:12 PM EDT

     WASHINGTON (AP) - First-time claims for jobless benefits fell
sharply last week, evidence that employers are laying off fewer
workers as the economy recovers.
      Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell by 24,000 to a
seasonally adjusted 456,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.
That was slightly below analysts' estimates of 455,000, according
to Thomson Reuters.
      The drop comes after claims rose sharply in the previous two
weeks. A Labor Department analyst attributed those increases to
seasonal adjustment difficulties around the Easter holiday, which
falls on different weeks each year.
      The four-week average of claims, which smooths volatility,
increased by 2,750 to 460,250. Despite that rise, claims have
slowly trended down this year. Applications for jobless benefits
peaked during the recession at 651,000 in March 2009.
      Still, many economists have been disappointed claims haven't
fallen faster, which would signal more hiring. Many analysts
estimate that the four-week average needs to fall below 425,000 to
signal sustained job growth.
      Employers in March added 162,000 jobs, the most in three years.
But the pace of the economic recovery and job creation hasn't been
robust enough to quickly drive down the unemployment rate. It's
been stuck at 9.7 percent for three months, close to its highest
levels since the 1980s.
      The tally of people continuing to claim benefits, meanwhile,
dropped by 40,000 to 4.65 million, the department said.
      That figure lags the initial claims by one week. It doesn't
include millions of people who have used up the regular 26 weeks of
benefits typically provided by states, and are receiving extended
benefits for up to 73 additional weeks, paid for by the federal
government.
      About 5.5 million people were receiving extended benefits in the
week ended April 3, the latest data available. That's down by about
500,000 from the previous week's total.