The tally of American workers claiming first-time jobless aid fell last week to below pre-hurricane levels, a government report showed Thursday.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 17,000 to 320,000 in the week ended Nov. 26 from an upwardly revised 337,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said.

Before the successive storms smashed the U.S. Gulf Coast region — with Hurricane Katrina in August and Rita in September — jobless claims figures had shown the U.S. labor market stabilizing at healthy levels.

The claims number came in just above expectations of Wall Street economists, who had forecast initial claims at 318,000, down from the original reading of 335,000.

A Labor Department analyst said there were about 7,000 new claims last week related to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, not adjusted for seasonal factors, which brings the cumulative number of claims linked to the Gulf Coast storms to 562,000.

Hurricane Wilma, which hit Florida in late October, was cited as the reason behind about 2,600 unadjusted claims, for a running total of 30,000.

The drop in claims will likely reinforce economists' expectations for a strong November employment report.

The Labor Department releases its closely watched figures on U.S. hiring outside the farm sector on Friday and economists polled by Reuters expect the report to show the U.S. economy created about 210,000 jobs in the month.

The unemployment rate is seen holding steady at 5 percent.

According to the weekly jobless claims report on Thursday, the closely watched four-week moving average, which irons out weekly volatility, fell to 322,500 last week from 323,750 the prior week.

The number of people still on benefit rolls after drawing an initial week of aid fell 24,000 to 2.77 million in the week ended Nov. 19, the latest period for which that data were available.