Initial jobless claims unexpectedly fell sharply last week to near their post-Great Recession low in a sign that the labor market remains healthy.
The number of people filing for first-time unemployment benefits dropped to 268,000, down 20,000 from the previous week's upwardly revised figure, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Economists had expected a slight increase in claims. Instead, the figure was the lowest since 267,000 in the week ended Jan. 24. That was the fewest since before the Great Recession.
The less volatile four-week average also fell significantly to 285,500, from the previous week's 300,250 level. Claims below 300,000 indicate a strong jobs market.
In addition, announced layoffs by U.S. businesses declined by 28%, to 36,594, in March from the previous month, career counseling firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said Thursday. The figure was the lowest since December.
Still, announced layoffs were up 15.6% in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period last year, mostly because of cuts by energy firms caused by falling oil prices, Challenger said.
"The drop in the price of oil has taken a significant toll on oil field services, energy providers, pipelines, and related manufacturing this year," said John Challenger, the company's chief executive.
Of the 140,214 layoffs announced in the first quarter, 47,610 were directly attributed to the steep decline in oil prices, Challenger said.
The new data came ahead of Friday's jobs report from the Labor Department, which is forecast to show continued strong growth in March.
Economists expect the Labor Department to say that the economy added about 247,000 net new jobs in March, down from 295,000 the previous month. The unemployment rate is expected to hold steady at 5.5%.
But there are concerns the economy slowed in the first quarter, and that could push job growth down.
U.S. companies added a disappointing 189,000 net new jobs in March, payroll firm Automatic Data Processing said Wednesday. The figure was well below expectations.
Also, consumer spending and durable goods orders were weak in February, the most recent data available.