WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits jumped by 16,000 last week, the second straight weekly increase. But the longer-term trend in layoffs remained consistent with an improved job market.

Applications increased to a seasonally adjusted 357,000 for the week ending March 23, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's up from 341,000 the previous week, which was revised slightly higher.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 2,250 to 343,000. Even with the gain, the average is only slightly higher than the previous week's five-year low of 340,750. Economists pay closer attention to the four-week average because it smooths out week-to-week fluctuations.

Despite the two weeks of higher initial unemployment claims, "the overall trend of stronger labor market growth continues," Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a note to clients.

First-time applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have been declining steadily since November. At the same time, hiring has accelerated, lowering the unemployment rate in February to a four-year low of 7.7 percent.


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