updated 3/2/2006 9:07:46 AM ET 2006-03-02T14:07:46

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week but still remained at a level indicating a healthy labor market.

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The Labor Department reported that 294,000 Americans filed for jobless benefits, up by 15,000 from the previous week.

Government analysts attributed part of last week’s increase to problems adjusting the raw data for normal seasonal variations in February, a month when the filings can be affected by snow storms and holidays.

The number of new benefit applications has been below 300,000 for the past seven weeks, an improvement that indicates the economy was posting a solid rebound in the opening months of the new year.

The government reported that the unemployment rate dropped to a 4½-year low of 4.7 percent in January as businesses added 193,000 new jobs. Analysts said the pace of layoffs in recent weeks would be consistent with net monthly job gains of between 175,000 and 200,000 in coming months.

The increase of 15,000 pushed jobless claims to their highest level in two weeks. The four-week moving average for jobless claims rose slightly to 287,250 last week, up from 282,000 in the previous week.

The low level of jobless claims so far this year is just one of a number of economic statistics showing that the economy was rebounding strongly from the blows dealt late last year by the hurricanes and surging energy prices.

Many economists believe economic growth could top 5 percent at an annual rate in the current January-March quarter, a significant improvement from the 1.6 percent growth rate turned in during the final three months of 2005.

For the week ending Feb. 18, when jobless claims had fallen by 19,000, nine states reported declines in claims that were bigger than 1,000.

The largest improvement came in Michigan, where jobless claims dropped by 10,195 due to fewer layoffs in the auto industry.

Claims were down 8,068 in California, but state unemployment officials attributed part of that improvement to the fact that benefit claims offices were open one less day because of a state holiday on Feb. 13 to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday.

Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina were the other states reporting a drop in claims of at least 1,000. The state data is reported with a one week lag from the national figures.

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