There were 331,000 first-time claims filed for unemployment insurance last week, down 20,000 from the week before, the Employment and Training Administration reports.
That's yet another report showing that claims remain in a range where they've been running since late 2011. What does that indicate? As we've said before:
When the economy is expanding and even when payrolls are growing, there are people being laid off who file jobless claims. But the stubbornly slow growth in employment in recent years has been underscored by the fact that there hasn't been a string of weeks below the 300,000-level since early 2006.
With that news out of the way, we'll turn again to a preview of the week's much-anticipated economic news: Friday's Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the January unemployment rate and job growth last month.
A month ago, the bureau said the jobless rate in December was 6.7 percent. Looking ahead to Friday's report, The Wall Street Journal says economists expect to hear that the unemployment rate edged down to 6.6 percent.
The more important data, economists say, will be about the number of jobs added to payrolls. The December report had bad news on that front: Just 74,000 jobs were added that month, BLS estimated (that figure could be revised Friday).
According to Bloomberg News, economists expect to hear Friday that there were 183,000 more jobs on payrolls in January than in December. Reuters' survey of economists produced a similar prediction: 185,000 more jobs.
While job growth in that range would be a notable improvement from December, it would still be well below the pace set before the Great Recession began in late 2007.
Why might the jobless rate edge down again even if job growth remains modest? The explanations include: the fact that the two figures are produced by different surveys; and that the jobless rate's decline may be due in large part to people leaving the workforce, either because they don't believe there are jobs available or because they're part of the sizable baby boom generation that's reaching retirement age.
One cautionary note: Some economists warn that harsh winter weather could skew the January employment numbers. The BLS report is "seasonally adjusted," but particularly severe weather may have led to more layoffs than usual in such industries as construction.