WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, hitting the lowest level in more than 48 years, pointing to a rapidly tightening labor market.
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Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 210,000 for the week ended Feb. 24, the lowest level since December 1969, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims for the prior week were revised to show 2,000 fewer applications received than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 226,000 in the latest week. It was the 156th straight week that claims remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is associated with a strong labor market. That is the longest such stretch since 1970, when the labor market was much smaller.
Federal Reserve officials consider the labor market to be near or a little beyond full employment. The jobless rate at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.
The Labor Department said claims for Maine were estimated. It also said claims-taking procedures in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands had still not returned to normal, months after the territories were slammed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The four-week moving average of initial claims, viewed as a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 5,000 to 220,500 last week, also the lowest level since December 1969.
The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid increased 57,000 to 1.93 million in the week ended Feb. 17. The four-week moving average of the so-called continuing claims fell 6,250 to 1.92 million.
Continuing claims data covered the period during which households were surveyed for February's unemployment rate. The four-week average of continuing claims fell 750 between the January and February survey weeks, suggesting little change in the unemployment rate.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani Editing by Andrea Ricci)