Economists polled by Reuters had expected first-time applications to fall to 360,000. Claims have seen large swings in recent months because of difficulties smoothing the data for seasonal fluctuations, making it hard to get a clear pulse of the labor market's health.
Job gains have averaged 177,000 per month over the past six months. At least 250,000 jobs per month over a sustained period are needed to significantly reduce the ranks of unemployed, economists say. The unemployment rate rose 0.1 percent to 7.9 percent in January.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Wednesday that the jobless rate was unlikely to reach more normal levels for several years. High unemployment prompted the U.S. central bank last year to launch an open-ended bond buying program that it said it would keep up until it saw a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.
The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 91,000 to 3.07 million in the week ended Feb. 16, the lowest level since June 2008. The household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived was also conducted during the week ended Feb 16.
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Weekly Unemployment Claims
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