WASHINGTON – The number of Americans signing up for unemployment benefits fell for the third consecutive week to its lowest level in almost two years, the government said Thursday.
The Labor Department cautioned, however, that the numbers may have been affected by the Thanksgiving Day holiday.
Initial U.S. jobless claims fell by 13,000 to 355,000 in the week ended Nov. 30, the department said. That was the lowest since the week of Feb. 17, last year, and was lower than analysts' expectations for 378,000.
The Labor Department said it can be difficult to seasonally adjust the numbers accurately during the holiday season in November and December. However, it did say the previous weeks' declines were a positive sign.
The four-week moving average, considered a more reliable measure of employment conditions because it irons out weekly fluctuations, also fell in the latest week.
The number dropped 10,500 to 376,500, remaining below the key 400,000 mark that analysts view as a sign of a troubled labor market, for the third week in a row.
And the number of workers remaining on state unemployment aid fell sharply. Continuing claims dropped 123,000 to 3.5 million in the week ending Nov. 23, the latest week these data were available.
Thursday's data comes a day ahead of the department's monthly employment report, which should help clarify the picture of the country's labor market.
Analysts are forecasting that the economy added 38,000 jobs in November but they also expect the jobless rate to have ticked up to 5.8 percent from 5.7 percent.
The central bank's decision-making Federal Open Market Committee is scheduled to meet next Tuesday to plot interest rate strategy. Labor conditions are one important factor the Fed policymakers likely will take into consideration.
The Fed cut interest rates sharply by a half-percentage point at its previous FOMC meeting in November and is widely expected to leave rates on hold next week at its final policy session this year.