The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly fell last week, government data showed on Thursday, suggesting a modest improvement in the labor market.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 361,000, the Labor Department said. The prior week's figure was revised up to 367,000 from the previously reported 365,000.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 370,000 last week. The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 2,250 to 368,250.
A Labor Department official said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data and no state had been estimated. Problems anticipating the timing of temporary plant shutdowns by automakers for annual retooling caused wide swings in claims in July, making it difficult to get a clean read of the jobs market.
Last week's report was the first in several weeks not affected by auto plant shutdowns, and the drop in new applications offered a hopeful sign for the labor market.
Nonfarm payrolls increased 163,000 in July, the most in five months, after three months of gains below 100,000. But the unemployment rate rose by a tenth of a percentage point to 8.3%. Worries of deep government spending cuts and higher taxes scheduled to kick in at the turn of the year and Europe's on-going debt crisis were making companies cautious about hiring new workers, economists say. The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid rose 53,000 to 3.33 million in the week ended July 28, the claims report showed. A total of 5.75 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits under all programs in the week ended July 21, down 214,367 from the prior week.