WASHINGTON, July 17 (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, suggesting the labor market recovery was gaining traction.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 302,000 for the week ended July 12, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
The prior week's claims were revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast first-time applications for jobless aid rising to 310,000 last week.
The four-weak average of claims, considered a better gauge of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 3,000 to 309,000, the lowest level since June 2007.
Claims tend to be volatile around the period after the July 4 holiday, when automakers normally shut down plants for retooling. A Labor Department analyst, however, said there were no special factors influencing the state level data.
The claims data covered the survey week for July nonfarm payrolls. Claims fell 12,000 between the June and July survey period, suggesting another month of solid job gains after June's hefty 288,000 increase.
Employment has grown by more than 200,000 jobs in each of the last five months, a stretch not seen since the late 1990s.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen cautioned on Tuesday the Fed could raise interest rates sooner and more rapidly than currently envisioned if the labor market continued to improve faster than anticipated by policymakers.
Economists currently do not expect the U.S. central bank to start raising interest rates before the second half of 2015. The Fed, which is wrapping up its monthly bond buying program, has kept overnight lending rates near zero since December 2008.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 79,000 to 2.51 million in the week ended July 5, the lowest level since June 2007.
The unemployment rate for people receiving jobless benefits fell one-tenth of a percentage point to 1.9 percent during the same period.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)
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