WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits declined slightly last week, suggesting that job gains should remain solid.

The Labor Department says weekly applications for jobless aid fell 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 291,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 1,750 to 287,500.

Employers are laying off fewer workers and have stepped up hiring this year. The weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs, and have fallen 16 percent in the past 12 months. They are close to the lowest levels since 2000, a sign companies are more confident in the economy and willing to hold onto their staffs.

The number of people receiving aid has also fallen steadily, and now stands at 2.33 million, the lowest since December 2000.