The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose to the highest level since early March, the government reported Thursday.

The Labor Department said that 315,000 newly laid off workers applied for jobless benefits last week, an increase of 11,000 from the previous week. The claims total was the highest since 319,000 laid off workers applied for benefits the week ending March 11.

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Private economists had been forecasting a much smaller rise of around 2,000 applications last week. Even with the bigger increase, claims remained at a level indicating a relatively strong labor market.

The four-week moving average of claims, which smooths out weekly volatility, edged up slightly to 308,500 last week, compared to 305,750 the previous week. It was the highest level in three weeks.

The labor market has been strong this year, posting a solid rebound after widespread layoffs in Gulf Coast states following a string of devastating hurricanes last year.

In March, employers increased hiring by 211,000 and the unemployment rate returned to a 4 1/2-year low of 4.7 percent.

Analysts believe that labor markets will remain strong in coming months, thanks to solid economic growth that has continued despite a sharp runup in energy prices this year.

The government will provide the first look at overall growth for the January-March quarter on Friday. Many economists believe it will show the gross domestic product, the economy's total output of goods and services, rising at a robust rate approaching 5 percent, up sharply from the sluggish 1.7 percent GDP growth rate turned in during the October-December quarter.

The total number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits rose by 22,000 for the week ending April 15 to 2.45 million, the highest level in a month.

There were two states reporting an increase in layoffs of more than 1,000 for the week of April 15.

Georgia said that layoffs increased by 2,024, a rise that was blamed on higher unemployment in the textile industry. New Jersey officials reported an increase in layoffs of 1,625 with the rise blamed on increasing numbers of pink slips in transportation, warehousing and service industries.

There were 14 states which reported layoff declines of more than 1,000 for the week ending April 15, a week when layoffs nationwide dropped by 10,000.

The improvements were led by California which saw a decline in layoffs of 11,539, reflecting fewer workers fired in the construction and service industries and in agriculture.

Michigan had a decline in layoffs of 4,421 followed by drops of 3,252 in Indiana and 2.996 in Texas.

The state jobless claims data lags the national data by one week.

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