The number of U.S. workers seeking unemployment aid fell last week, the government said on Thursday in a report that showed an improving labor market and added to signs the recession may be loosening its grip.

The Labor Department said the number of Americans applying for first-time jobless benefits fell by 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 373,000 in the week ended Feb. 9 from a revised 381,000 the prior week. That was below the 378,000 claims economists in a Reuters poll had forecast.

The four-week moving average, considered a more reliable measure of employment conditions because it irons out weekly fluctuations, fell to 376,000 from 381,500. That was its lowest level since 372,000 in the week ending Aug. 11 of last year, and marked the fourth straight weekly decline.

"The labor market is improving, but it's not ready to blow down any doors in the next couple of months," said Carey Leahey, a senior U.S. economist for Deutsche Bank Securities.

While the report suggested some improvement in labor market conditions, it also showed that workers continue to have a hard time finding new jobs. The department said the number of workers still filing jobless claims after one week without finding a job rose to 3.43 million in the week ending Feb. 2, the latest week for which data is available.

Looked at state-by-state, Georgia had the biggest drop in jobless claims in the Feb. 2 week as a result of fewer layoffs in the textile industry, the government said. Texas had the second biggest decrease as a result of fewer job cuts in manufacturing, information, and wholesale trade industries.

Meanwhile, North Carolina had the biggest jump in claims two weeks ago, due to layoffs in the construction and textile industries, the department said. Washington state posted the second biggest increase in claims.

Many more Americans lost their jobs in the fourth quarter of 2001 than in the same period a year earlier, a government report showed on Wednesday, as the Sept. 11 attacks had a considerable negative effect on the nation's already shaky labor market.

However, a number of signs have emerged that the economy may be throwing off the shackles of recession. On Wednesday, many economists raised their forecasts for first quarter U.S. economic growth after the government reported U.S. consumers spent more than expected in January. Retail sales excluding automobiles surged 1.2 percent, the strongest gain in nearly two years.