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Weekly jobless claims stay below 300,000, showing strong labor market

Jobless claims were below 300,000 for the second straight week, a sign the labor market remains strong

Initial jobless claims remained steady last week at just under 300,000, indicating a strong labor market after a late February increase raised concerns that conditions were weakening.

About 291,000 people applied for first-time unemployment benefits last week, up 1,000 from the previous week's revised total, the Labor Department said Thursday. The figure was in line with analyst expectations.

It was the second straight week with claims below 300,000, a level economists say is consistent with robust job growth.

Claims unexpectedly shot well above 300,000 in the last two weeks of February.

But that now appears to have been a short-term jump, probably influenced by severe weather in some parts of the country.

"In one line: No sign of slowdown here," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said of the jobs market.

He expects job growth in March, April and May to average about 275,000. That would be below the average of 288,000 for the previous three months but still a healthy level.

Federal Reserve policymakers Wednesday were a bit more upbeat about the jobs market than they were in December.

They forecast the unemployment rate, which was 5.5% in February, could drop as low as 5% by the end of the year.

"Considerable progress clearly has been achieved, but room for further improvement in the labor market continues," Fed Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen told reporters Wednesday.

Citing the strengthening labor market, the Fed took a significant step toward its first interest rate hike since 2006. But Yellen indicated such an increase still probably was a few months away.

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