03/15/2012 08:41 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Weekly unemployment benefit applications drop to 351K, matching a 4-year low

WASHINGTON - Fewer people sought unemployment benefits last week, adding to signs that the job market is strengthening.

The Labor Department says weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 351,000. That matches a four-year low reached last month. The four-week average, which smooths fluctuations, was unchanged at 355,750.

Applications have levelled off in the past few weeks after falling for six months. The average has declined 14 per cent since October.

The steady decline has coincided with the best three months of hiring in two years. From December through February, employers have added an average of 245,000 jobs per month.

When unemployment benefit applications drop consistently below 375,000, it usually signals that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.