The number of U.S. workers making new claims for unemployment benefits tumbled unexpectedly last week to 271,000, their lowest level in nearly six years, the government said on Thursday in a report suggesting a robust labor market.
The Labor Department said initial claims for state jobless aid fell 36,000 in the week ended Jan. 14 from a revised 307,000 the prior week. That was the largest one-week drop since late September, and brought initial claims to their lowest level since April 2000, when they were 257,000.
Wall Street economists had forecast initial claims would rise to 315,000 from the initially reported 309,000 the prior week.
A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors behind last week's drop, but noted that there is typically extra volatility in the data around the holidays.
The four-week moving average of initial claims, which smooths weekly volatility for a more reliable indication of underlying employment trends, fell by 12,000 to 299,000, the lowest level since October 2000.
The report also showed that the number of people still on the jobless rolls after drawing an initial week of aid dropped by 158,000 to 2.53 million in the week ended Jan. 7, the latest for which these data are available. This was the largest one-week decline in continued claims since November 2001, when they dropped by 220,000, and brought continued claims to the lowest level since February 2001.
Wall Street economists had forecast continued claims to rise to 2.68 million in the Jan. 7 week.
Federal Reserve officials believe strong U.S. growth has lifted the economy close to full employment -- a theoretical concept indicating the lowest level of unemployment the United States can sustain without triggering wage inflation.
The unemployment rate dropped to 4.9 percent in December despite lackluster job growth of just 108,000 last month.