NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance fell last week to the lowest level in six weeks, the government said Thursday.
There were 442,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended March 20, down 14,000 from a revised 456,000 the previous week, according to a weekly report from the Labor Department.
Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were expecting new claims to have fallen to 450,000 in the week. The number of claims was the lowest since the 439,000 claims reported in the week ended Feb. 6.
The 4-week moving average of initial claims, which smoothes out volatility in the measure, was 453,750. That's down 11,000 from the previous week's revised average of 464,750.
The decline is a "positive sign," said Andrew Gledhill, an economist at Moody's Economy.com. It comes after several weeks of volatile swings in initial claims data, which were subject to Labor Department revisions and distorted by severe winter weather in February.
"We're definitely not where we want to be," he said. "But we're headed in the right direction."
The report also said 4,648,000 people filed continuing claims in the week ended March 13, the most recent data available. That's down 54,000 from the preceding week's revised 4,725,500 claims.
The 4-week moving average of continuing claims was 4,689,000, a decrease of 36,500 from the preceding week's revised average of 4,725,500.
Continuing claims reflect people filing each week after their initial claim until the end of their standard benefits, which usually last 26 weeks. The figures do not include those people who have moved to state or federal extensions, or people whose benefits have expired.
Lawmakers in the House passed a bill last week to extend the deadline to file for unemployment insurance by one month, through May 5. Earlier this month, the Senate approved a bill that would push back the deadline until the end of the year.
President Obama signed into law a $17.6 billion measure last week that calls for tax breaks for businesses and additional infrastructure spending with the hope of boosting employment.
The moves come as Congress continues to work on legislation aimed a spurring jobs and bringing down the national jobless rate, which remains a stubbornly high 9.7%.
Gledhill said he expects to see further declines in jobless claims data in the months ahead, due partly to government hiring for the 2010 census. However, he warned that government-funded job creation may not be enough to sustain a long-term recovery in the job market.
"Later in the year, when some of the federal stimulus starts to wane, that's when the private sector has to step up hiring," he said.
Thursday's report showed that the job markets in California and Michigan remain the hardest hit, with 3,434 new claims filed in the Golden State and 2,487 in Michigan.
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