WASHINGTON (AP) - The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 336,000 last week, bringing applications to pre-recession levels. The Labor Department says the less volatile four-week average dropped 9,250 to 348,250. The average was elevated by the 16-day partial government shutdown and backlogs in California that occurred because of computer upgrades. Weekly applications have fallen for four straight weeks. While companies are firing fewer workers, they are not hiring many new ones. Falling applications are typically followed by more job gains. But hiring has slowed in recent months, rather than accelerated. In a surprise, the economy grew at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter, according to a separate government report released Thursday. That's up from 2.5 percent in the April-June quarter.