By Chris Isidore@CNNMoneyFebruary 28, 2013: 9:01 AM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)
First-time claims for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, according to a government report that showed an unexpected improvement in the labor market.
The Labor Department report showed 344,000 Americans filed for jobless benefits in the latest week, down from 366,000 the previous week. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast 360,000 would be seeking help in the latest report.
The average number of people seeking help over the past four weeks totaled 355,000, down 6,750 from the four-week average the previous week. Economists prefer to look at the four-week average to smooth out the impact of short-term blips that can be caused by weather and other special events.
Overall, average claims are down about 3% from where they were a year ago. They've largely been hovering in the 330,000 to 375,000 range for the last three months -- a level that seems to be consistent with the U.S. economy adding about 180,000 jobs each month. But that's barely enough to keep up with population growth and not enough to make a significant improvement in reducing the unemployment rate.
In addition to counting first-time claims, the Labor Department also tracks people who have filed for their second week or more of benefits. The latest data show 3.1 million people filed continuing claims during the week ended February 16, an 91,000 decrease from a week earlier, and down nearly 10% from those receiving longer-term help a year ago.