The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose less than expected last week, according government data on Thursday that suggested a mild improvement in the labor market.
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Initial claims for state unemployment benefits climbed 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 367,000, the Labor Department said. The prior week's figure was revised up to show 4,000 more applications than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 370,0000 last week. The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, was unchanged at 375,000. It was the first time since December last year that the four-week average was unchanged.
A Labor Department official said there were no special factors influencing the report and no states had been estimated.
Despite fears of tighter fiscal policy next January, there is little sign that companies are responding by laying off workers on a wide scale.
Last week's claims data fell outside the survey period for the September employment report, but applications dropped 18,000 from the first week of the month, signaling some improvement in the pace of job creation last month.
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Employers are expected to have added 113,000 jobs to their payrolls in September, an increase from 96,000 in August, with the unemployment rate edging up by a tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent, according to a Reuters survey of economists.
The anticipated modest improvement in labor market conditions has also been telegraphed by increases in measures of manufacturing and service sector jobs in September. In addition, payrolls processor ADP on Wednesday reported better than expected private sector jobs gains in September.
Worries over the so-called fiscal cliff - automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts that will suck about $600 billion out of the economy next year if lawmakers fail to agree how to slash the budget deficit - are making businesses cautious about ramping up hiring.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid was unchanged at 3.28 million in the week ended September 22. It was the first time since December last year that so-called continuing claims were unchanged.