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U.S. jobless claims edge up; trend signals firmer labor market

By Lucia Mutikani
Jessica Kolber (R) shakes hands with a job seeker at a job fair in Burbank, Los Angeles, California March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits rose last week for a third straight week, but the underlying trend continued to point to a solidly improving labor market.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 295,000 for the week ended April 18, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims for the prior week were unrevised.

The claims data covered the period during which the government canvassed employers for April's nonfarm payrolls report.

Employment growth slowed sharply in March, with nonfarm payrolls increasing by only 126,000, ending a 12-month stretch of gains above 200,000. But with the weakness mostly concentrated in the weather-sensitive leisure and construction sectors, economists downplayed the slowdown.

Federal Reserve officials have said they would like to see further improvements in the labor market before raising interest rates. Faltering economic growth at the start of the year has made a June rate hike less likely.

The U.S. central bank has kept its short-term interest rate near zero since December 2008.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast jobless claims slipping to 290,000 last week.

U.S. stock index futures extended losses after the data, while prices for U.S. government debt were largely unchanged. The dollar dipped against a basket of currencies.

A Labor Department analyst said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data.

Claims tend to be volatile around this time of the year because moving holidays like Easter and school spring breaks often throw off the model that the government uses to smooth the data for seasonal fluctuations.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, increased 1,750 last week to 284,500. Claims below 300,000 are associated with a strengthening labor market.

The four-week average of claims fell 20,750 between the March and April survey periods, suggesting an acceleration in job growth.

Thursday's claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid increased 50,000 to 2.33 million in the week ended April 11.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)