Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 332,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. That was the third straight week of declines.
The prior week's claims figure was revised to show 2,000 more applications than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected first-time applications last week to rise to 350,000.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, fell 2,750 to 346,750, the lowest level in five years - suggesting a firming in underlying labor market conditions.
A Labor Department analyst said no states had been estimated and there were no special factors influencing the report.
The sustained pace of steady job gains is starting to push up wages, which should support domestic demand. Though layoffs have ebbed, sluggish domestic demand has made companies cautious about ramping up hiring.
A government report on Tuesday showed layoffs in January were the fewest since 2000. The signs of strength in the labor market could intensify the debate at the Federal Reserve on the future course of monetary policy.
Concerns over high unemployment prompted the U.S. central bank last year to launch an open-ended bond buying program, but divisions are emerging among policymakers about the program.
The central bank is buying $85 billion in bonds per month and has said it would keep up its asset purchases until it sees a substantial improvement in the labor market outlook. Policymakers meet next week to assess economic conditions.
The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid dropped 89,000 to 3.02 million in the week ended March 2. The so-called continuing claims were at their lowest level since June 2008.
Photo Credit: Sayed Mouawad, left, of Providence, R.I., shakes hands with Jillian Wallace of Matix, Inc., during a job fair in Boston. The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment aid fell to a seasonally adjusted 340,000 in the week ended March 2, driving down the four-week average to its lowest level in five years. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
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