New jobless claims fell last week to 216,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.
First-time claims for state unemployment benefits were expected to total 225,000 in the most recent week, a decline from the 231,000 claims reported for the prior week.
Jobless claims are a proxy for layoffs. They have been closely watched this year for signs that trade disputes could be costing American jobs. So far, however, there have been no signs that this is the case.
Jobless claims are also now being scrutinized to see if the government shutdown will cause a rise in claims. Private contractors working for the U.S. government as well as furloughed federal employees can claim unemployment benefits during the shutdown. Employees who are later paid for the furlough period, however, must reimburse their state government for any benefit payments.
Claims by federal workers are reported separately and with a one-week lag. The number of federal employees filing for jobless benefits rose by 3,831 to 4,760 in the week ending December 29.
The sharp drop in claims suggests that the labor market continues to be hot. In December, nonfarm payrolls rose by 313,000, much more than economists had expected and sharply up from the month earlier. The unemployment rate rose slightly, to 3.9 percent, because more Americans were drawn into the workforce.
Claims hit 202,000 in September, which was the lowest level since December 1969.
Weekly jobless claims can be volatile and affected by holidays. The four-week moving average of initial claims, a better measure of labor market trends because it smooths out week-to-week volatility, rose 2,500 to 221,750 last week.