12/29/2011 08:43 EST | Updated 02/28/2012 05:12 EST

More people in U.S. seek unemployment aid for first time in month, trend down

WASHINGTON - The number of people in the United States seeking unemployment benefits rose last week for the first time in a month.

But a measure of applications over the past month fell to a three-and-a-half-year low, an indication that hiring could pick up.

The Labor Department says weekly applications rose 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 381,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell for the fourth straight week to 375,000 — the lowest level since June 2008.

Applications generally must fall below 375,000 — consistently — to signal that hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate.

Unemployment benefit applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. Applications have plummeted in the past month, indicating that job cuts have fallen sharply. Still, many companies have been slow to boost hiring.