WASHINGTON - Initial claims for unemployment benefits dropped more than expected last week, but little relief for workers is in sight as companies continue to cut jobs.

The Labor Department said yesterday that new applications for jobless benefits - by people just laid off - fell to a seasonally adjusted 554,000 for the week ending Dec. 13, from 575,000 the previous week. The new tally was slightly below economists' expectations of 558,000 claims.

One likely reason for the improvement is that the figure was inflated two weeks ago by applicants who delayed filing their claims during the Thanksgiving holiday week, a Labor Department analyst said. The government attempts to account for such volatility with its seasonal adjustments but is not always successful.

In fact, the four-week moving average, which smooths out fluctuations, increased slightly to 543,750 claims, the highest since December 1982. The labor force has grown by about half since then.

Large layoffs are occurring across many sectors of the economy. Yesterday, water treatment and storage systems maker Pentair Inc. said it will cut more than 10 percent of its work force, or about 1,600 jobs, due to a faster-than-expected drop-off in demand and consumer spending.

Also, FedEx Corp. said yesterday that it has cut jobs and closed locations in its FedEx Office unit, as the company anticipates business at its copy and shipping stores will continue to wane.

The latest claims data indicate that employers are continuing to lay off workers and are slow to hire, trends that economists said will send the unemployment rate higher in coming months.

The Labor Department said earlier this month that employers cut 533,000 jobs in November, sending the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent, the highest in 15 years.

And yesterday, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry said the state's unemployment rate rose in November to 6.1 percent from 5.8 percent in October. The rate last month was the highest since 1994.

Economists consider jobless claims a timely, if volatile, indicator of the health of the labor markets and broader economy. A year ago, initial claims stood at 349,000.

The elevated level of claims is just one of several signs that the labor market has deteriorated rapidly in recent months. On Wednesday, hard drive maker Western Digital Corp., managed-care company Aetna Inc., and Newell Rubbermaid Inc., maker of products including Rubbermaid storage containers and Sharpie pens, announced mass job cuts.