The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, pointing to a continued steady improvement in labor market conditions.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 27,000 to a seasonally adjusted 341,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's claims figure was revised to show 2,000 more applications received than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected claims to fall to 360,000.
A Labor Department analyst said claims for Illinois and snowstorm-hit Connecticut had been estimated. Nevertheless, because most claims are filed online, the blizzard that slammed the East Coast appeared to have little effect on the broader claims data, he said.
While companies are no longer aggressively laying off workers, they appear to be in no hurry to step-up hiring against the backdrop of still lackluster demand.
The economy has struggled to grow much more than 2 percent since the 2007-09 recession ended.
Job gains averaged 181,000 per month in 2012, far less than the at least 250,000 that economists say is needed to significantly reduce the ranks of unemployed.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 1,500 to 352,500. The prior week's drop to a near five-year low was probably exaggerated by difficulties at the start of the year smoothing out the data for seasonal fluctuations.
The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid dropped 130,000 to 3.11 million in the week ended February 2. That was the lowest level since July 2008 and could reflect people exhausting their benefits.
So-called continuing claims had hovered around 3.2 million since late November and economists had viewed that as an indication of little change in the unemployment rate. The jobless rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 7.9 percent in January.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)