The ranks of Americans queuing up to claim jobless benefits for the first time grew by 21,000 last week as expected, government data showed on Thursday, while continued claims declined to the lowest level in four years.

Initial claims (search) for state unemployment aid (search) rose to 320,000, matching Wall Street forecasts, compared with a revised 299,000 the previous week, the Labor Department (search) said. This number had initially been reported at 296,000.

A Labor Department official said there were no special factors to take into account when examining the numbers but cautioned that claims data were usually volatile around holiday periods like school spring break and summer vacations.

A four-week moving average of claims, which smoothes weekly volatility to provide a better sense of underlying job-market trends, fell by 8,000 to 323,000.

The total number of unemployed still on the benefit rolls after an initial week of aid, another underlying indicator on the health of the labor market, dropped by 76,000 to 2.56 million in the week ended April 16, the latest week for which figures are available.

This was the lowest reading since March 10, 2001, and will keep the spotlight on employment after disappointment over the March payrolls data that showed just 110,000 new jobs created last month. April's payrolls report is due on May 6 and a Reuters forecast of analysts predicted it would report 173,000 jobs were added.