WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits edged higher last week but remained at pre-recession levels, a signal of growing strength in the labor market.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 308,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
The data could provide some of the strongest guidance this week on the health of the U.S. economy as a partial government shutdown delays the release of economic data, including the monthly employment report which was scheduled to be released on Friday.
New jobless claims have been falling for much of this year and for weeks there have been fewer of them than even before the 2007-09 recession began, a signal that the long cycle of elevated layoffs had ended.
However, employers have been more reticent about adding new workers to payrolls, and many economists doubt whether the claims data still provides a clear signal on the pace of hiring.
Ian Shepherdson, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said the data was "good news, if only the payroll numbers would tell the same story."
Still, he said the number was at least consistent with a slightly faster pace of hiring.
The jobless claims data can also be volatile, although a Labor Department analyst said there was nothing unusual in last week's data.
The four-week average of new claims, which smooths out weekly volatility, fell 3,750 to 305,000, the lowest level since May 2007.
The data appeared to have little impact on investor sentiment. U.S. stock index futures fell as the government shutdown extended to a third day and leaders in Congress showed no sign of progress towards resolving the stalemate. Prices for U.S. government debt held at lower levels following the data's release.
The shutdown might also start clouding the jobless claims data as well.
While hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed this week would be counted separately from the state unemployment benefits data, contractors out of work because of closed government agencies could apply for state benefits, the department analyst said.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid rose by a sharp 104,000. The department analyst said this reflected California catching up on unprocessed claims following an update to its computer processing systems.
A separate report showed the number of planned layoffs at U.S. firms fell 20 percent in September, even as cuts in the healthcare sector more than doubled from the prior month.
Employers announced 40,289 layoffs last month, down from 50,462 in August, according to the report from consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.
Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Meredith Mazzilli in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci