The number of laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits fell last week for the third consecutive time, signaling that the labor market may be stabilizing after a worrisome jump in layoffs earlier in the year.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of applications for jobless benefits totaled 316,000 last week, a decline of 4,000 from the previous week.

The third straight drop in claims pushed them down to the lowest level in six weeks and provided evidence that the labor market is not seriously weakening even though the overall economy is slowing.

Last week's decline caught analysts by surprise. They had been forecasting that claims would rise by around 7,000 after two weeks of improvement. Economists are closely watching layoffs to see if the economic slowdown that began last year will at some point prompt employers to trim their workforces.

So far businesses have been reluctant to lay off employees although they have reduced the hiring of new workers. A total of 97,000 new jobs were added to payrolls in February, the weakest performance in two years, although the unemployment rate showed a slight improvement, falling to 4.5 percent, down from 4.6 percent in January.

The economy slowed sharply in the spring of last year, under the impact of soaring energy prices and a faltering housing market. Recently, financial markets around the globe have suffered sharp sell-offs as investors have grown worried that rising troubles in the mortgage lending industry could spread to the overall economy.

However, the Federal Reserve triggered a strong rally on Wall Street on Wednesday after Fed policymakers signaled that they might consider cutting rates later this year if the economy weakens further.

The drop of 4,000 claims followed a decline of 10,000 for the week ending March 10.

In that week, 34 states and territories reported declines in claims before adjusting for normal seasonal variations. A total of 19 states and territories saw claims rise during that week.

The biggest increases were in Tennessee, a rise of 2,837 that was blamed on layoffs in services, real estate and manufacturing. North Carolina had a rise of 2,642 claims and Wisconsin saw claims rise by 1,444.

The biggest decreases in claims were in New York, which saw a drop of 10,766, reflecting fewer layoffs in service and transportation industries. Michigan had a decine of 8,039 claims, reflecting fewer layoffs in the auto industry, while California saw layoffs fall by 3,181, reflecting fewer layoffs in construction.