The number of people claiming unemployment benefits for the first time rose slightly last week, after two weeks of sharp drops, further evidence that layoffs are easing. The Labor Department said Thursday that initial claims for jobless benefits rose by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 434,000 last week. That's lower than the 447,000 that analysts expected, according to Thomson Reuters. The four-week average of claims, which smooths fluctuations, fell for the 18th straight week, to 450,250. That figure is nearing the roughly 425,000 that many economists say would be a sign the economy will start creating jobs. Economists are closely watching initial claims, which are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies' willingness to hire new workers.