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WASHINGTON - The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell 10,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 340,000, a sign that employers are laying off very fewer workers.

The Labor Department's first-time application figures were largely free of the distortions that had elevated the data earlier in the month.

The 16-day partial government shutdown and backlogs in California due to computer upgrades still inflated the four-week average. The average rose 8,000 to 356,250, the highest since April.

Still, those distortions are no longer affecting the weekly data, a government spokesman said. The shutdown ended Oct. 16.

Applications are now close to the pre-recession levels that were reached in August, before California's computer problems distorted the data.