Published: Mar 08, 2012 3:17 PM EST
Updated: Mar 08, 2012 4:23 PM EST

WASHINGTON (AP) - More people applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week. But the overall level stayed low enough to suggest the job market is strengthening.
 
The Labor Department says weekly applications increased by 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000, the highest level since January.
 
The four-week average, which smooths week-to-week fluctuations, edged up to 355,000, its first increase in eight weeks. Still, that's only slightly above the previous week's figure of 354,750, the lowest in nearly four years.
 
Applications have fallen 14 percent since October. When applications fall below 375,000, that generally signals hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate. The steady decline has coincided with three months of big hiring gains.