The ranks of Americans filing initial claims (search) for jobless pay shrank by more than expected last week to 323,000, government data showed on Wednesday, while continued claims fell to a 3-1/2 year low in more good news for the U.S. labor market.

First-time claims for state unemployment benefits were down 12,000 in the week ending Nov. 20 from a reading of 335,000 the prior week. The Labor Department (search) said there were no special factors at play in the report.

A Reuters poll of analysts had forecast a rise in claims to 335,000 in the week from an initially reported 334,000.

In a further upbeat sign, the four-week moving average of filings, which smoothes out weekly fluctuations to provide a better picture of underlying trends, retreated by 6,750 to 332,000 from a revised 338,750, which was first reported at 338,250.

Wednesday's release adds to generally brighter news on the employment front, lifting hopes for further solid growth after the economy added a surprisingly strong 337,000 new jobs in October and the previous two months' numbers were also revised higher.

The number of unemployed staying on benefit rolls after claiming an initial week of aid dropped by 29,000 to 2.755 million in the week ending Nov. 13, the latest for which these figures are available. This was the lowest reading for so-called continued claims since May 5, 2001, when they came in at 2.726 million, the Labor Department said.