The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits fell for a third straight week, providing further evidence of a strong job market.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that 299,000 laid-off workers applied for jobless benefits last week, down 5,000 from the previous week after declines of 8,000 and 7,000 in the two previous weeks.

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The total number of Americans receiving benefits dipped to 2.44 million, the lowest level in six years, signaling that the labor market has posted a strong rebound after the blows received last year from the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

The government will report Friday on unemployment for March. Analysts believe the economy created a solid 198,000 jobs last month, down slightly from the 243,000 jobs created in February. The unemployment rate is expected to remain unchanged at 4.8 percent.

Economists are looking for strong job growth to continue in coming months even as the economy slows a bit from what is expected to be a sizzling growth rate, perhaps topping 5 percent in the January-March quarter.

The booming labor market has cut the number of laid off workers drawing unemployment benefits to 2.44 million for the week ending March 25, a decline of 22,000 from the previous week.

That was the lowest level for jobless benefits since February 2001, a month before the country stumbled into the 2001 recession, ending a record-long decade of economic growth. Job losses persisted even after the recession ended in November 2001 as companies sought to get more production out of fewer workers in an effort to meet intense global competition.

For the week ending March 25, a total of 32 states and territories reported a drop in claim applications while 21 reported increases.

Kansas had the largest increase in claims, a rise of 2,189, which was attributed to higher layoffs in construction, retail trade and service industries. The other state reporting an increase in layoffs of more than 1,000 was New York, where benefit applications rose by 1,292.

Five states reported big declines in layoffs, led by North Carolina where benefit applications dropped by 1,843 because of fewer layoffs in construction, retail trade, furniture manufacturing and food industries. California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio also reported declines in benefit applications of more than 1,000.

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