WASHINGTON (AP) a¿¿ The Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week. The report will be released Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern. ANOTHER DECLINE: Economists forecast that applications dropped 6,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 330,000, according to a survey by FactSet. STEADY DROP: If the forecast is accurate, it would be the fifth straight decline in applications. Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so the steady decline is evidence that companies are cutting fewer jobs. Applications have fallen to pre-recession levels. HIRING PICKS UP: Last week's report on hiring and unemployment in October showed that businesses are also adding workers at a steady pace. Employers added 204,000 jobs last month, many more than expected and a sign that companies shrugged off the 16-day partial government shutdown. Private businesses added 212,000 new positions, the most since February. Hiring has accelerated since the summer. Employers added an average of 202,000 jobs per month from August through October. That's up sharply from an average of 146,000 in May through July. The solid job gains should help boost the economy in the coming months. Greater hiring, combined with modest increases in pay, could encourage Americans to spend more. Still, the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.3 percent from 7.2 percent, partly because many federal workers were temporarily laid off during the shutdown. Job growth is a major factor for the Federal Reserve in deciding when to reduce its economic stimulus. The Fed has been buying bonds to keep long-term interest rates low and encourage borrowing and spending.