updated 7/22/2004 9:06:26 AM ET 2004-07-22T13:06:26

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell slightly last week in another indication that the labor market is still showing signs of improvement.

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The Labor Department reported that 339,000 newly laid-off workers showed up at state unemployment offices for the week ending July 17, down by 11,000 from the previous week.

Weekly benefit claims have been on a roller coaster in recent weeks, falling by 40,000 the week of July 3 to 309,000, the lowest level in nearly four years. However, that improvement was followed by a jump of 41,000 claims in the next week.

Analysts blamed much of the volatility on the fact that automakers this year closed their plants for retooling a week later than the Labor Department's seasonal adjustment calculations had expected, thus distorting the figures temporarily.

The four-week moving average of claims, designed to smooth out week-to-week volatility fell to 336,750 last week, compared to 339,250 the previous week, Both figures reflected a substantial improvement from the 415,000-level for claims a year ago.

Analysts believe that the labor market, after nearly three years of weakness, is finally beginning to exhibit sustained growth, something that President Bush and other incumbents are hoping will continue in this election year.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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