The number of newly laid off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in 11 months, indicating a solid labor market at the beginning of the year.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that applications for jobless benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 290,000, down 8,000 from the previous week when claims had fallen below 300,000 for the first time in six months. The back-to-back improvements pushed claims to the lowest level since the week of Feb. 18, 2006.

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The latest decline came as a surpise. Claims had been expected to start rising again, given weakness in such key sectors as housing and auto productions.

Economists cautioned that trouble in adjusting the claims figures for normal seasonal variations during holiday periods could be overstating the amount of improvement in the labor market.

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