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Fewest requests for unemployment aid since 2008

WASHINGTON — The number of people applying for unemployment benefits plunged last week to the lowest level in nearly three years, boosting hopes that companies will step up hiring this year as the economy strengthens.

Applications sank by a seasonally adjusted 36,000 to 383,000, the lowest point since early July 2008.

Unemployment applications reflect the level of layoffs, but also can indicate whether companies are willing to hire.

Applications below 425,000 tend to signal modest job growth. But they would need to dip consistently to 375,000 or below to indicate a significant and steady decline in the unemployment rate.

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