The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose more than expected last week, but still remained at levels consistent with a steady improvement in labor market conditions.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's claims figure was revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected first-time applications to rise to 355,000. The increase in claims last week pushed them toward the upper end of their range for this year.

A blizzard that hit the East Coast late in the first week of February could have exaggerated the drop in claims for the week ended February 9.

A Labor Department analyst said claims for California and Virginia had been estimated, as well as figures for Hawaii and the District of Columbia.

Last week's data covered the survey period for the February nonfarm payrolls report. Claims were up 27,000 between the January and February survey periods.

But this probably does not suggest any material change in the pace of job growth given that claims been very volatile since January because of difficulties smoothing the data for seasonal fluctuations.

Employers added 157,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, a pace that is expected to have held in February.

The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, increased 8,000 to 360,750.

Job gains remain far less than the at least 250,000 per month over a sustained period that economists say is needed to significantly reduce the ranks of unemployed. The unemployment rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 7.9 percent in January.

High unemployment prompted the Federal Reserve last year to launch an open-ended bond buying program that it said it would keep up until it saw a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.

But minutes of the U.S. central bank's January 29-30 meeting released on Wednesday suggested it might have to slow or stop asset purchases because of the concerns over the costs of the program.

The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid rose 11,000 to 3.15 million in the week ended February 9.

So-called continuing claims have not changed much since late December.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)