Weekly Jobless Rate Down

The number of Americans filing initial jobless claims declined modestly as expected last week, government data showed on Thursday, on the eve of a closely watched February employment report.

First-time claims for state unemployment insurance benefits fell 7,000 to 345,000 in the week ended Feb. 28 versus a revised 352,000 claims the prior week, the Labor Department (search) said. Wall Street had predicted the 345,000 claims result.

A Labor Department official said there were no special factors to take into account.

The latest reading continues the relative stability of new claims from 339,000 to 368,000 seen since the middle of December, suggesting the pace of layoffs had steadied.

The closely watched 4-week moving average of initial jobless claims (search), which smooths out weekly fluctuations and gives a better sense of what is happening to underlying employment, fell 3,000 to 352,250 from a revised 355,250 the prior week.

The number of people continuing to draw a week of benefits was flat at 3.091 million in the week ended Feb. 21, the latest week for which continued claims data are available, after falling 72,000 the previous week.

The February employment report, due on Friday, is expected to show the U.S. economy added jobs at its fastest pace in three years but hiring remains weak by historic standards.

Wall Street expects businesses to have added 125,000 new workers to nonfarm payrolls last month, up from January's 112,000 increase and the highest figure since July 2000. The unemployment rate is expected to hold steady at 5.6 percent.