The number of Americans filing initial claims for jobless aid dipped last week while the ranks of workers drawing benefits fell to a 2½ year low, the government said on Thursday.

First-time claims for state unemployment insurance fell 6,000 to 341,000 in the week ended March 6 versus a revised 347,000 claims the prior week, the Labor Department (search) said.

The latest figure, the lowest since late January, was close to expectations on Wall Street. Economists had forecast claims to hold steady at the 345,000 initially reported for the Feb. 28 week.

New clain, the number of people continuing to draw benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 41,000 to 3.03 million in the week ended Feb. 28, the latest week for which the data is available. It was the lowest level of so-called continued claims since July 2001 and offered a further sign of labor-market improvement.

The drop in first-time filings pushed a closely watched 4-week moving average (search) of claims lower. That labor-market gauge, which smooths weekly fluctuations to offer a better sense of underlying trends, fell 6,750 to 345,750.

The department did not see any evidence the recent resolution of supermarket strike in Southern California had impacted last weeks data, an official said.

Economists generally view claims below the 400,000 level as a sign of an improving labor market. But while the pace of layoffs has eased, hiring has yet to pick up appreciably.

Non-farm employers (search) added a paltry 21,000 workers to their payrolls last month, according to a Labor Department report released last Friday.

The anemic performance raised concerns among some analysts that the economy could falter later this year if more robust jobs growth does not set in.

"The economy is reaching a pivotal point," Stephen Stanley, an economist at RBS Greenwich Capital, said in a research note on Wednesday.