The number of idled workers seeking jobless benefits (search) for the first time fell sharply last week, dragged down in the wake of Hurricane Isabel (search), to its lowest level since early February, the government said on Thursday.

First-time claims, which give an early reading on the resilience of the labor market, fell steeper than expected to 381,000 in the Sept. 20 week, down from a revised 400,000 a week earlier, and to its lowest since 378,000 in the Feb. 8 week. Wall Street economists forecast new claims at 400,000 compared to the original estimate of 399,000.

"About 50 percent of the decline is a result of the power outages from Hurricane Isabel that forced the closure of state offices in such areas as North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia," said a Labor Department spokesman.

The center of the storm made landfall on Sept. 18 on North Carolina's Outer Banks, then charged to the northwest through central Virginia.

The closely watched four-week moving average, regarded by economists as a truer reflection of the market than the more volatile weekly figure, fell to 407,000 in the Sept. 20 week from 411,000 in the previous week, and was above the key 400,000 mark for the fourth straight week.

Economists view claims above the 400,000 mark as a sign of a lackluster jobs market.

Analysts predicted the September payrolls report would show the economy shed 15,000 jobs outside the farm sector after losing 93,000 the month before. The employment rate is expected to rise to 6.2 percent after 6.1 percent in August.

Labor's employment situation for September is scheduled for release on Oct. 3.

The number of people continuing to draw a week of benefits fell by 28,000 to 3.63 million in the Sept. 13 week, the latest week for which figures are available. But the overall trend remains high suggesting people are still having a tough time finding work.