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WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week to its lowest level in eight years.

The Labor Department says weekly applications for unemployment aid dropped 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 284,000. That's the lowest reading since February 2006, nearly two years before the Great Recession began.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, declined 7,250 to 302,000. Claims for jobless aid have been falling for the past three months.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. When businesses hold onto staff, increased hiring and stronger economic growth often follows.

Hiring is at its healthiest clip since the late 1990s and the 6.1 percent unemployment rate is at a 5 1/2-year low. Employers added 288,000 jobs in June, the fifth straight month of job gains above 200,000.

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