WASHINGTON (AP) — Employers are laying off fewer workers, a trend that normally suggests hiring is picking up. The January jobs report next week will show whether employers have begun to hire more freely or are still waiting for the economy to strengthen.

The number of people seeking unemployment aid has reached a five-year low. Some employers, such as health care companies, restaurants and retailers, are hiring steadily. Yet overall job growth remains modest. And the unemployment rate is the same painful 7.8 percent it was when Barack Obama became president four years ago.

The economy isn't growing fast enough to accelerate hiring. Flat pay and high unemployment are holding back consumer spending, which rose at a meager annual rate of 1.6 percent in the July-September quarter.

The economy expanded at a 3.1 percent annual pace in the same period, partly because companies stockpiled more goods, which boosts production. Most economists think growth dipped below a 2 percent rate in the October-December quarter because consumer demand remains tepid.

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