The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits jumped by 17,000 last week to the highest level in two months, the Labor Department (search) reported Thursday.

The increase pushed claims to 327,000, a worse-than-expected showing that was blamed in part on a surge in filings by laid off workers who were not able to get to unemployment offices the previous week, when claims offices were closed one day for the President's Day (search) holiday.

The increase pushed the four-week moving average, intended to smooth out week-to-week fluctuations, to 312,500, up from 307,750 the previous week, which had been the lowest level in more than four years.

The increase in jobless claims, which pushed the level to the highest point since Jan. 8, took economists by surprise. They had been expecting claims would hold steady at the previous week's level of 310,000. Still, they said even with the uptick, jobless claims were remaining at levels which indicated a healthy labor market.

The government reported last week that the economy created 262,000 new jobs in February, the biggest advance in four months and more than double the jobs increase that occurred in January. The job gains last month were broadbased with manufacturing, construction, retail stores, health care and business services all reporting hiring increases.

The good jobs report was encouraging because it followed several months of lackluster employment gains. It bolstered the belief that the economy, despite rising interest rates and oil prices, is continuing to grow at a solid pace in the new year.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve (search) reported in its latest survey of business conditions that the economy continued to expand in recent weeks, with labor markets showing strength in almost all Fed districts.

Fed policy-makers meet again on March 22 and it is widely expected they will increase interest rates for a seventh time since they started tightening credit conditions last June. The Fed is raising borrowing costs in an effort to slow the economy enough to keep inflation from getting out of control.