Jobless claims back at four-year lows

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 15, 2012 8:33am EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New claims for unemployment benefits fell back to a four-year low last week, a government report showed on Thursday, suggesting further strengthening in the labor market.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 351,000, the Labor Department said. That took claims back to a four-year low reached in February.

The prior week's figure was revised up to 365,000 from the previously reported 362,000. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 356,000 last week.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, was unchanged at 355,750.

First-time applications for jobless benefits have been tucked in a tight range since mid-February, a hopeful sign for the labor market, which has enjoyed three straight months of employment gains above 200,000.

The jobless rate held at a three-year low of 8.3 percent in February.

While the Federal Reserve on Tuesday acknowledged the recent improvement in the labor market, it remained concerned with the still-high unemployment rate.

The U.S. central bank said it expected the jobless rate, which has declined 0.8 percentage point since August, to "gradually" decline.

A Labor Department official said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data and that no states had been estimated.

The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid declined 81,000 to 3.34 million in the week ended March 3 - the lowest level since August 2008.

Despite the improving labor market picture, long-term unemployment remains a huge problem and about 43 percent of the 12.8 million out of work Americans in February had been jobless for more than six months.

The number of Americans on emergency unemployment benefits fell 53,415 to 2.88 million in the week ended February 25, the latest week for which data is available.

A total of 7.42 million people were claiming unemployment benefits during that period under all programs, up 36,392 from the prior week. (Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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