WASHINGTON - The number of U.S. workers filing first-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell unexpectedly in the week that ended Dec. 25.

The decline suggested that jobs are still easy to find. Initial jobless claims declined by 9,000, to 274,000, from a revised 283,000 a week earlier, the Labor Department said Thursday. Analysts had predicted a 5,000-claim increase.

"There are no signs of an unraveling of this tight labor market," said Richard Yamarone, senior economist at Argus Research Corp. in New York. "This is good for the consumer and this is good for the economy." Weekly claims, 316,000 in 1998, averaged only 297,365 last year through Dec. 25. The last full year with a lower average was 1973, with 244,000 claims a week.

General Motors Corp. and other automakers, along with computer service providers, and restaurants kept adding workers as the economy moved toward its longest expansion ever.

The overall level of claims has stayed below 300,000 for 12 weeks in a row, ranging between 267,000 and 293,000. The less-volatile four-week moving average for claims fell from 284,250 to 279,750 - the lowest since it the week that ended Dec. 15, 1973.

The insured unemployment rate rose to 1.8% in the latest week, from 1.7% the week before. Twenty-eight states and territories reported higher claims, and 23 reported declines.

The economy added 2.66 million jobs in 1999 through November, against 2.92 million in all of 1998. The unemployment rate held at a 29-year low of 4.1%, and 234,000 jobs were added.

Companies added an average of 214,000 jobs a month through November, versus 244,000 a month in 1998.

- Bloomberg News

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