The number of Americans filing initial claims for unemployment benefits rose an unexpectedly large 19,000 last week but held below the 300,000 level for a fifth straight week for the first time in over five years, signaling a strong job market.
The Labor Department said on Thursday 297,000 first-time claims for state unemployment aid were filed in the week ended Feb. 11, up from a revised 278,000 in the prior week.
Economists polled by Reuters looked for initial claims to rise to 285,000 from the 277,000 originally reported for the Feb. 4 week.
The increase pushed the four-week moving average of initial claims, which smooths weekly volatility to provide a better sense of job market conditions, up by 6,250 to 283,000.
While the rise in claims in the latest week brought them to their highest level since the first week of the year, the overall level suggested the labor market was still robust.
The last time initial claims held below the 300,000 level for five consecutive weeks was a stretch from late May 2000 to early July 2000.
The department said the number of unemployed who remained on the benefit rolls after an initial week of aid fell 39,000 to 2.51 million in the week ended Feb. 4, the latest week for which figures are available.
A four-week moving average of that labor market barometer slipped to its lowest level since March 2001, underscoring the health of the job market.
Earlier this month, the department said the U.S. unemployment rate fell in January to a 4-1/2 year low of 4.7 percent.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke indicated in testimony to Congress on Wednesday increasingly tight labor markets could lead the central bank to push interest rates up further in an effort to ensure the economy does not "overshoot" its potential and generate inflation.