WASHINGTON -- Initial jobless claims unexpectedly increased last week but remained low in a positive sign for labor market growth before Friday's jobs report.
About 326,000 people applied for first-time unemployment benefits in the week ended Saturday, the Labor Department said Thursday. The figure was up from 310,000 the previous week, the lowest level since September.
Analysts had projected a smaller increase to 320,000 last week.
The four-week average was little changed at 319,500 and pointed to an improved jobs situation in March.
"One reason for the optimism is claims are down on a sustained basis," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York.
The last time the four-week average was lower was in September, before economic growth took a hit from the partial federal government shutdown and severe winter weather.
The consensus among economists is that the economy added 206,000 net new jobs last month, up from 175,000 the previous month, as the effects of extreme cold temperatures and snowstorms eased.
The unemployment rate is expected to tick down 0.1 percentage points to 6.6% when the Labor Department releases its March jobs report Friday. That rate would match the more than five-year low hit in January.
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