Jobless Claims Hold Near 15-Year Low

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By Lucia Mutikani

(Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose marginally last week, staying near a 15-year low in a sign that the labor market continues to strengthen despite moderate economic growth.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 265,000 for the week ended May 2, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

Claims for the prior week were unrevised at 262,000, which was the lowest reading since April 2000. Claims have been below 300,000 for nine weeks. That threshold is usually associated with a strengthening labor market.Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 280,000 last week. A Labor Department analyst said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 4,250 last week to 279,500, the lowest since May 2000.

The dollar rose to session highs against the euro on the data, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt price trimmed gains.

The data has no bearing on Friday's employment report for April as it falls outside the survey period.

However, the low trend in claims provides optimism that nonfarm payrolls rebounded in April, despite a report on Wednesday showing that private employers last month hired the fewest workers in more than a year.

According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased 224,000 in April after gaining 126,000 in March, when hiring was held back by bad weather.

Expectations for a relatively strong employment report were also bolstered by a separate report showing small businesses increased hiring last month.

The National Federation of Independent Business said businesses added an average of 0.14 workers per firm last month.

Fifty-three percent of small businesses reported hiring or trying to hire, up 3 points from March, with the majority saying there were few or no qualified applicants for the positions they were trying to fill.

April's employment report could offer new clues on the strength of the economy's recovery after a mix of cold weather, a strong dollar, port disruptions and deep spending cuts by energy firms brought first-quarter growth to a crawl.

So far April data on automobile sales and manufacturing suggest moderate momentum in the economy at the start of the second quarter.

The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid declined 28,000 to 2.23 million in the week ended April 25.

That was the lowest reading since November 2000 and suggested more long-term unemployed are getting jobs.

While the overall labor market is strengthening, lower oil prices are putting a strain on employment in a energy sector.

More than 20,000 jobs were lost in the sector last month, according to global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That brought the total for the industry so far this year to 68,285 job cuts.

Schlumberger (SLB.N), Baker Hughes (BHI.N) and Halliburton (HAL.N) have all announced multiple rounds of job cuts in recent months.

"The jobs that are most vulnerable are those in the field – engineers, oil rig operators, drill operators, refinery operators," said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)
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