First-time claims for US unemployment benefits fell last week to their lowest level in two months as the recovery in the jobs market grinds forward, government data released Thursday showed.
Initial jobless claims, an indicator of the pace of layoffs, fell to 323,000 in the week ending November 16, from an upwardly revised 344,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said.
The new data bettered analysts' consensus estimate of 333,000 claims.
It was the lowest reading since the last week in September, when new jobless claims fell to 308,000 ahead of the October 1-16 government shutdown that furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers.
The four-week moving average, which helps iron out week-over-week volatility, fell by 6,750 to 338,500.
"This is a welcome result, putting claims back to the levels seen before the government shutdown and California systems upgrade distortions," said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.
Shepherdson warned that the data over the next couple of weeks could be distorted because of the Thanksgiving Day holiday on November 28.
"Still, if claims can remain at this week's level it would be easier to believe in the idea that the labor market really is stirring and that payroll growth could break out to the upside," he said.
The US economy added a surprisingly strong number of jobs in October -- 204,000 -- but the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.3 percent from 7.2 percent in September.
Coupled with revisions that added 60,000 net new jobs to the previous two months' numbers, the figure suggested the economy is healthier than many believed.