NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of first-time filers for unemployment insurance fell last week for a fourth straight week, according to a weekly government report released Thursday.
There were 444,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended May 8, down 4,000 from an downwardly revised 448,000 the previous week, according to the Labor Department's weekly report. The number of claims is the lowest since the 442,000 reported in the week ended March 27.
The number of claims was slightly higher than expected. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had expected new claims to fall to 440,000.
The downward trend in initial claims continues to show general improvement in the economy, and is consistent with monthly reports that show employers are starting to add jobs, said Michael Hanson, senior economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
The government's latest monthly jobs report, released Friday, showed employers added 290,000 jobs in April, the best gain in four years.
The four-week moving average for weekly initial claims was 450,500, down 9,000 from the previous week. The Labor Department tracks the four-week moving average of the weekly figures, to smooth out the volatility of the measure.
Initial claims have been stuck in the mid- to upper 400,000s since November, but seem to be hitting some resistance once they drop around 450,000.
While the recent decline in the four-week average is encouraging, economists are really looking for the number to get below 400,000 to spur sustainable job growth, said Tim Quinlan, an economist with Wells Fargo Securities.
Quinlan said he expects to see gradual improvement in payrolls through the course of the year, but no dramatic increases in job growth until initial claims fall below 400,000.
Also showing some resistance, instead of a consistent trend, are continuing claims, the number tracking people who file for unemployment benefits for two weeks or more. The government said 4,627,000 people filed continuing claims in the week ended May 1, the most recent data available. That was up 12,000 from the preceding week, but overall is still much improved over the 6,389,000 continuing claims reported in the comparable week last year.
"If you just got laid off and trying to find a job, it's still a really difficult environment, and the climb in continuing claims tells us it's taking people a while to land their feet in a job," Quinlan said.
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