The number of US workers applying for unemployment benefits tumbled by 24,000 last week to a much lower-than-expected 351,000, but the number remaining on jobless aid stood at the highest level in nearly two and a half years, the Labor Department said.
Economists were expecting initial jobless claims to fall to a seasonally adjusted 360,000 for the week ended March 1, from 375,000 the prior week, revised up from 373,000.
But the number of workers remaining on jobless benefits still stood at the highest level since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. These continued claims rose to 2.83 million for the week ended Feb. 23, the most recent week these figures were available, from 2.80 million.
"Continued claims are a sign of workers having a harder time to find jobs. The time of unemployment has stretched out a bit," said Christopher Low, chief economist for FTN Financial in New York.
While Thursday's data showed some weakness in the labor market, Wall Street analysts will be closely watching the government's report to be released Friday on the employment picture last month.
Economists are expecting a scant 25,000 jobs were added bringing the unemployment rate up to 5.0 percent from 4.9 percent.
A Labor Department official said there were no special factors behind last week's bigger-than-expected decline in jobless claims.
The four-week moving average, considered a more reliable measure of employment conditions because it irons out the weekly fluctuations, edged down to 359,500 from 361,000.